TX - Jammed 911 May Have Delayed Fire Response

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Jammed lines to FW's 911 may have delayed fire response


By Nancy Calaway / The Dallas Morning News

FORT WORTH  Crissy Aguirre walked through the charred remains of her west Fort Worth house last week, fighting back tears over her loss.

Jim Mahoney / DMN A fire caused an estimated $75,000 worth of damage to Crissy Aguirre's Fort Worth home. When she tried to report the fire to 911, a recording played and she was put on hold. "The city probably needs to see why it is happening," she said.

Wedding pictures on the wall. Clothes and toys. The five years she labored on renovations for the three-bedroom starter home.

Of course, she said, she's grateful no one was hurt in the blaze that was first noticed around midnight last Saturday. But there's a part of her that wonders whether the fire would have destroyed everything her family had if her 911 calls had not been delayed.

"I called three times, and three times I got a recording. I was put on hold while I was watching my house get engulfed," she said. "I thought you would talk to someone. I didn't think you would have to wait on hold when you call 911."

The city's communications department concluded an internal review of the response Thursday and forwarded it to Fort Worth Police Chief Ralph Mendoza, who on Friday had not had a chance to look at the results.

Deputy Chief Randy Ely, who oversees the communication division, said the study showed 911 operators had more than twice the usual number of emergency calls when Ms. Aguirre called.

"Generally in about 10 minutes, they'll get about 20 calls," he said. "In the 10 minutes before midnight [Aug. 12] we had 47 calls, and in the 15 minutes after midnight, there were 87 calls, including reports of an explosion at an elementary school, shots fired, a loud party and a missing 2-year-old. It was extremely busy that night."

The recording Ms. Aguirre heard is not uncommon on such an active night, and waiting times usually range from a few seconds to a minute, officials said.

"Sometimes people panic and keep hanging up, and that puts you at the end of the line of callers," said Fort Worth City Councilwoman Becky Haskin. "In those situations people have to remain calm, stay on the line with the recording and know that it's only a matter of maybe a minute before someone will get to them."

But Ms. Aguirre and some of her neighbors said they are not pleased that any delay, no matter how brief, could compound a life-threatening incident.

Ms. Aguirre, a 33-year-old mother of three, said she began calling 911 after she rounded her family and pets outside. Her first calls were made from her cell phone at midnight, she said, although it could have been a few minutes earlier.

"I was really panicked. It was spreading so quickly," she said. "It was frantic. It was all happening so fast."

Surprised to get the recording, Ms. Aguirre hung up and called back twice. She then called her sister and sister-in-law, who also got the recording, she said. Eventually, Ms. Aguirre's sister started calling alternative numbers from the phone book.

The emergency call was recorded at 12:05 a.m. Saturday. Fire trucks began rolling at 12:06 a.m. and arrived at the home at 5709 Dennis Ave. at 12:09 a.m.

The one-alarm fire was under control 15 minutes later, but the flames already had caused an estimated $75,000 worth of damage.

"Every minute counts, there's no doubt about that, but it's really hard to pin anything on that time because we're not sure about the other conditions and how quickly it was discovered and all those other aspects," said Lt. Kent Worley, a fire department spokesman.

"Does it make a difference? Sure. Does it make a major difference? I don't know if anyone could say."

The fire was caused by an electrical problem in the air conditioning in one of the bedrooms, fire officials said.

People with an emergency can get the recording when there is a heavy call volume, especially during peak weekend night hours or weekday rush hours, officials said.

In the communications center, there is an alert made to call takers when calls are holding. Even if there is a hang-up during the recorded message, the caller's address and telephone number are forwarded to the next available call taker, officials said.

However, the technology to identify cellular telephone callers is just being implemented in Tarrant County.

Alisa Simmons, a spokeswoman for the Tarrant County 911 District, said wireless companies are working with emergency operators to identify cellular phone numbers with a caller ID system. If a wireless user hangs up during the recorded message, an operator would be forwarded the cell number and be able to return the call, she said.

A second phase of the FCC requirements will provide technology to pinpoint cellular callers' locations by October 2001, Ms. Simmons said.

Officials also are reminding people to use 911 only for emergencies to reduce the number of incoming calls.

"About 40 to 50 percent of what they get are really nonemergency calls  people asking for directions, asking about the weather, musicians asking about words to lyrics," Chief Ely said. "If you can imagine it, we've had it, and that really ties up the system."

In the meantime, Ms. Aguirre said she is concerned for people who would get the recording when there is an immediate life-threatening concern, such as a heart attack.

"The city probably needs to see why it is happening," she said. "Maybe more people are moving into the area, maybe they need more help, but there are always going to be emergencies." http://dallasnews.com/metro/146730_911hold_21met..html

-- (Dee360degree@aol.com), August 21, 2000

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