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Clara Barton emergency highlighted 911 system failings
Monday, February 21, 2000 By Edward L. Ronders JOURNAL STAFF WRITER
FLINT - Within minutes of the Nov. 10 explosion at the Clara Barton Terrace Convalescent Home, a Hansen EMS ambulance sped from its Davison base to the scene and became part of a countywide rescue effort. But the ambulance crew, like others at the scene, could not talk to other rescuers by radio.
Flint fire and police relied on the city's emergency dispatch system to receive and transmit information. Other agencies used Genesee County's 4-year-old 911 central dispatch system. The Hansen crew and other private ambulance operations were using their own dispatch systems.
So calls coming into the county's 911 center in Flint Township had to be relayed to the ambulances via telephone - including a call from the family of a Davison heart attack victim.
"What happened at Clara Barton was unconscionable," said state police Capt. Dan Miller, third district commander, who helped design the 911 dispatch center in Lapeer County before being assigned to Genesee County in the early 1990s.
"The city of Flint can't communicate with the out-county agencies, and the out-county agencies couldn't communicate with those brought in from outside Genesee County," Miller said.
The multiple radio systems were only one reason communications were disjointed that night. The other was the loss of a special medical frequency.
When Genesee County's new, $5.9-million central dispatching system was installed at the new state police post four years ago, the special medical frequency was disconnected. The problem was only recently discovered and is expected to be corrected soon.
"We've been searching, with the phone company, for the source of that problem for more than a year," said Lloyd Fayling, director of the county 911 system. "We found out last week that the (frequency) line runs to the sheriff's department. We'll hook it back up soon."
To solve the other communications struggles, the Genesee County 911 Consortium is considering a new 800 megahertz radio system. Several counties in the state area already are using 800 mhz systems, and the state police are developing a statewide system.
Had such a system been in place in November, Miller said, emergency crews would not have needed to rely on messages relayed by telephone.
Upgrading to an 800 mhz system would allow more radio traffic than is available now - and would allow multiple agencies, such as those responding to the Clara Barton explosion, and the dispatch center to communicate on the same channels at the same time. Other users also say the system offers more clarity and versatility.
An actual switch to such a system is at least two years and an estimated $12 million away. But that call for the Davison heart attack patient the night of the explosion puts the issue in perspective.
As the Hansen crew was transporting Clara Barton residents to nearby shelters, the Davison man's family called 911 for an ambulance, said James Hansen, owner of Hansen EMS.
Unable to contact the ambulance on duty by radio, the 911 dispatchers telephoned Hansen's home base in Davison.
The Hansen employee then radioed the ambulance crew at Clara Barton.
All the while, precious minutes ticked off the clock.
"There was no loss of life, but there was potential," Hansen said.
Hansen, a former Davison City Council member who has been critical of the county's central dispatch system, also pointed to the loss of the emergency medical frequency as part of the problem.
But even though the medical frequency is being reconnected, Hansen is skeptical.
"If the current system isn't working well after we bought state-of-the art equipment, to spend another $12 million would be a pipe dream," he said.
Edward L. Ronders covers Flint Township, education and veterans and military affairs. He can be reached at (810) 766-6314. http://aa.mlive.com/news/index.ssf?/news/stories/20000221fambulside.frm
-- Carl Jenkins (Somewherepress@aol.com), February 21, 2000