Question over 911 reliabilty : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread


Questions Over 911 Reliability In Whatcom County February 13, 2000

WHATCOM COUNTY - One of the first things we teach our children is how to dial 911. They are the three numbers we rely on for help in any emergency.

But in Ferndale, just north of Bellingham, there is fear that dialing those three numbers will get you only silence on the line.

Last October Ladonna Arstad tried to call 911. She says, "I called 911, it rang once and then there was dead silence. No one picked up."

Celia Parkinson says she had trouble reaching 911 last September. "There was nothing. No ringing after I dailed 911 so I did it again and still nothing." Parkinson says she finally got an answer on her third try.

Ferndale resident Barry Haddock has the most tragic story of 911 calls gone awry. The night of October 30th is etched in his memory.

His wife Mary was lying on the couch, watching television.

Haddock says, "I heard her gasp. I jumped up. I pulled out the pillow. I hollered her name. I ran over to the phone and dialed 911."

As the seconds ticked by, Haddock heard nothing on the line. He thought it had gone dead.

Haddock says, "So I started CPR as best I could and I jumped back up ran over to the phone again did the exact same thing again. Had a dial tone. Dialed 911. The phone went dead."

Haddock dragged the phone over. He tried to save Mary with CPR. He phoned a neighbor, a former paramedic.

Ron Parkinson says, "When I knelt down next to Barry I picked up the phone and the line was just completely dead and I asked him if he had called 911 and he was obviously real emotional and he said he had tried to call twice."

On his third try Haddock reached 911. The tape shows how distraught he was.

It took only minutes for fire crews to get to Mary, but it was too late.

Haddock says, "That's a terrible thing to watch your wife die right there and you can't get ahold of 911."

911 Problems Documented

At Ferndale City Hall they've been gathering stories of problems with 911. That very same night that Mary Haddock died, another woman tried to call 911 for emergency medical help for her husband. She says it rang once and was silent.

That's the very same thing that happened to another woman the next day in a non-emergency situation. Ladonna Arstad says she waited through 30 seconds of silence on the line and had to dial 911 twice more before she got through.

GTE area manager Michael Howard says, "We just have not seen those types of failures in the tests that we do daily."

GTE and US West together provide 911 service for Ferndale. Neither company can find a problem.

US West spokesperson Lynn Espinoza says they "aren't sure what happened in Mr. Haddock's case. We are sure the call went through the US West Network."

How It's Supposed To Work

Here's how a 911 call is supposed to work in Ferndale: From the house the call goes to a GTE switch. The switch recognizes a 911 call and sends it to a US West nerve center in Bremerton. From there it goes to the WhatCom emergency center in Bellingham. It's supposed to take a few seconds, but it can take as long as 13 seconds.

Espinoza says, "In this case it appears that 13 seconds was not waited for. Perhaps he hung up too soon. In a case like this that is not a delay in getting to 911. That's a standard delay and certainly to Mr. Haddock it felt like an eternity, but was not."

But at the state Emergency Center they say no 911 call should ever take 13 seconds.

Bob Oenning of the Statewide 911 system says, "I don't know where the 13 seconds comes from. I have never seen any standard document from any body in any publication that says 13 seconds." Oenning says 911 calls should be processed in less than 7and a half seconds.

Pressing For A Fix

State Senator Georgia Gardner of Blaine is pressuring the telephone companies to improve. She says, "How long is 13 seconds when your wife is dying? How long is 13 seconds when your child is injured? It's about a lifetime, isn't it?"

Ferndale City Council members are uneasy. Councilmember Susan Kohl says the phone companies "just don't seem to have answers that assure us that the problem has been fixed or will not happen again."

While the phone companies deny there is any problem, they cannot explain what happened when a paramedic tried to test the 911 system from Barry Haddock's house.

US West says Haddock's three calls did go through. He just hung up too soon. The company claims computer records show all three calls.

But the records only show one call later that night when Paramedic John Scurlock did his test. But Scurlock says he made two calls.

The first time he heard silence on the line. He doesn't know exactly how long he waited but says, "You know it was long enough for me to think it wasn't working and try again."

The second call went through right away.

Barry Haddock says he will always believe his wife would have lived had he reached 911 the first time.

-- Martin Thompson (, February 14, 2000

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