No state standards for 911 operators

July 19, 2011 10:29:10 AM PDT
911 phone operators save lives every day. They get police, fire, and ambulances to emergencies, and they can give vital medical instructions in the case of a heart attack or similar medical crisis.

But in several recent cases, the ABC11 I-Team found examples of 911 calls where operators seemed rude, unhelpful, and sometimes incompetent.

Durham resident Claudia Brueckner says she knows what it's like when the 911 system breaks down. She called for help when she saw her neighbor's home on fire in 2009.

"It was just ablaze from the roof up," she recalled.

But the 911 operator who took her call couldn't understand the address she was given. The burning home was on Shantercliff Place and even though Brueckner said the name six times, and even spelled it out, the operator apparently heard Chantacleer.

From the time of Brueckner's first call to the arrival of the first fire truck with water, 11 minutes and 44 seconds elapsed.

Seventy-four-year-old Marvin Jacobs died in the fire.

"We'll never know if they actually could've gotten to the address and spared his life," said Jacobs' daughter, Kathy.

"It was a horrible tragedy," she continued. "The only place that you kinda can see where there could've been some improvement is the 911 dispatcher."

After the fire, an investigation showed Brueckner's address did not show up on the 911 operator's computer and the operator - Theresa Hopkins - did not follow proper procedures. She lost her job over the incident.

But the Durham fire in 2009 doesn't appear to be an isolated incident. ABC11 looked at other 911 calls from emergencies across central North Carolina in recent months that raise questions about the training and attitude of some operators.

In a call about a wreck near Wake Forest that killed three teenagers last month, a caller told an operator that he heard the sound of the collision, but was not near enough to the wreck site to see it.

Despite that, the 911 operator continued to press for information the man clearly didn't have.

"How many vehicles? How many vehicles?" the operator asked the caller.

"I have no idea; I just heard the horrendous wreck. I am outside my property and I heard a horrendous wreck. I am going there now. But send somebody there," the caller responded.

"Okay, well I need, I can't send anybody if I don't have any information, and you're telling me there's a wreck. I'm trying to see how many vehicles, you don't know how many vehicles, but I'll get somebody here, I'll get somebody…" the operator responds.

The dispatcher did send emergency workers.

In another incident last month, a man witnessed a shooting where four people died in a car along a road in Research Triangle Park. Clearly shocked and upset by what he had seen, the man couldn't give a cross street of where it was along Highway 54.

"Highway 54 and [expletive], I don't know, ma'am! I don't know," said the caller.

"Sir, I would like to help you but I cannot tolerate that language," the 911 operator responded.

And in yet another incident last month, someone fired a gun at a couple driving on I-540 in Raleigh. When they called 911 for help, incredibly, the operator wanted them to stop even though someone was shooting at them and got frustrated when they wouldn't.

"Since you're at RDU, you're outside of Raleigh police department's jurisdiction. They're not going to come that far, that's why I was trying to get you to go back to Raleigh," said the operator.

As we started looking at some of these calls, ABC11 learned there are no state-mandated training or certification requirements for 911 operators.

Richard Taylor, who heads the North Carolina 911 Board wants that to change. He and his state agency, which was created in 1998, are pushing for uniform training across the state.

"It's unfortunate in North Carolina that to get your hair cut, the person to cut your hair has to be certified, [but] to answer a 911 call, you can take a person right off the street, sit them down, give them a telephone, and they can answer the call," said Taylor.

Taylor says some 911 operators get no training at all. He told ABC11 that if operators were certified, there would likely be fewer incidents like the ones we found.

"I certainly hope so, and it's our goal that if, if we don't see the result, a positive result, then we want to look at what the certification and the training requirements are," he said.

The new regulations are still being formulated and won't go into effect for statewide training and certification of 911 operators for a year to a year-and-a-half.

The director of the Durham 911 Center told us he's already investing in state of the art technology and training. He said Durham is going "above and beyond" his center is now one of only three in the world holding three high-level accreditations.

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