NEBRASKA - Error Sends Firetruck Wrong Way : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

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Published Thursday March 23, 2000 Error Sends Firetruck Wrong Way BY JEREMY OLSON WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER A database error that sent firefighters to a house fire in northwest Bellevue - 10 miles from the actual fire in north Omaha - left 911 personnel scrambling to correct information and review dispatcher practices.

A woman who lives in the 6900 block of North 52nd Street in Omaha dialed 911 at about 10:30 p.m. March 14 after she discovered that the siding on the back of her house was on fire. A 911 database apparently listed her address on South 52nd Street and routed her call to the Sarpy County Communications Center.

"When that call came in, it should have gone to the Douglas County 911 center, but it came to us," said Sarpy County Emergency Management Agency Director Dan Peterson.

Though described by phone officials as "extremely rare," such glitches are a growing problem in the Omaha area, according to 911 officials, because of the increasing number of companies offering local phone service. More people inputting information into the 911 database means more potential for error, Douglas County 911 Chief Mark Conrey said.

"My concern, and it's growing as time passes, is that the location information . . . is not as reliable as it was in the past," Conrey said.

Normally, dispatchers are supposed to verify addresses when people call for help. But in this case, Peterson said, the Sarpy dispatcher, a trainee, heard fear in the woman's voice and advised her to get out of the house before he could verify her location.

"She was at a high level of distress, and (the dispatcher's) main concern was to get her out of the house immediately," Peterson said.

Bellevue firefighters were sent to the 6900 block of South 52nd Street. Had the error been only in the numbers of the street address, firefighters probably would have noticed smoke and found the right house. But in the Omaha area, the difference between a house with a north or south designation in its address can be extreme. In this case, it was a difference of 10 miles and two separate fire department jurisdictions.

Bellevue firefighters requested further information from the dispatcher when they couldn't find any signs of a fire. The dispatcher then called the woman, Cynthia Wilson, who went back into the house to get the phone, said her husband, Thomas.

"They said, 'This is Sarpy County. Where do you live?' " he said.

The error was soon discovered and the emergency call forwarded to the Douglas County 911 center. By the time Omaha firefighters arrived at the correct address - an estimated 15 to 20 minutes later - the fire had subsided, Wilson said.

Some vinyl siding on the house is being replaced because of the fire damage. Thomas Wilson said the delay was "annoying" and caused stress for his wife as she waited anxiously for help to arrive.

Officials said database errors can result when people move to new homes but take their old phone numbers with them. Annexations also can change the agencies that are supposed to serve certain areas.

Communications officials said they are frustrated by the errors, which generally are found only when someone calls for help.

"That's a very dangerous thing," Conrey said. "Could you imagine if that was a medical emergency?"

Peterson issued a reminder last week to dispatchers to make sure to check addresses with callers. He also filled out a form to have the address corrected in the 911 database, which is maintained for local phone providers by a company in Boulder, Colo.

But when Conrey tested the system Wednesday afternoon, it still showed an incorrect address for the Wilsons. Later in the day, after being notified of the error, a U S West spokeswoman had it fixed.

Human error probably resulted in it being entered incorrectly into the 911 database, said Karla Ewert, the Nebraska media relations manager for U S West. This kind of error is "extremely rare," she said, but it appears to have been in the 911 database for years.

"We have rechecked all of our company records on this customer," Ewert said. "Every single one of them has the north address except the 911 database. There's no good logical reason for it."

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-- (, March 23, 2000

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