When You Call 911 and Nobody Picks Up

May 3, 2017 Kristance Harlow
Emergency Sign 911

On November 16, 2016, Becky Seguin found her brother David unresponsive with only a faint pulse. Becky called 911 while her younger brother, a firefighter, and his girlfriend, a registered nurse, tried to save David’s life. Her call was routed to a dispatch center in Westminster, Vermont. Two mountains and two hours separated her and the call center. When the same dispatcher asked to confirm her address, it was incorrect. By the time the ambulance arrived, David was already dead.

“I remember [the call taker] saying our address was 705,” she recalled. “I said, ‘No, our address is 707,’ and they kept saying 705. Then they said 747. I don’t even know if that exists [on our street]. Meanwhile, more time was going by and no one came. No one from first response, no police, nothing.”

Turns out, 747 doesn’t exist on her street in Castleton, Vermont, a small college town with a population of 4,700. Emergency services were sent to the wrong address. It took a local police officer overhearing everything on his radio to clear up the confusion. Seguin recalled absolute chaos at home and lack of understanding on the phone.

“It’s a pretty horrible feeling knowing your brother is dying and help isn’t coming,” Seguin said. “Then you see the police go flying by your house and you know it’s because they have the wrong address via 911.” Becky said that David’s death was probably not preventable because he “either had an aneurysm or a stroke [and] he would have passed no matter what.” But she doesn’t want anyone else to go through a similar experience.

Across the United States, emergency dispatch services are consolidating, and in many cases, run privately. In rural areas, it could mean the difference between life and death.

Across the United States, every disclaimer about emergencies tells you to call 911. The American Red Cross teaches certification courses in life-saving skills like CPR, and before administering aid you’re advised to call 911. But most of us don’t know what happens between the time we call and the time help arrives.

When you call 911, the call taker confirms your location, sometimes asking for information to figure out where you are. Then she collects information about the emergency and provides you with pre-arrival instructions. Next, she gets in touch with the necessary remote dispatchers in your jurisdiction. The call taker continues to provide you with further guidance until help arrives. Ideally, fire, police, or medical assistance should arrive in seven minutes — though this response time varies nationwide.

Budget cuts and shifting priorities have meant that, in many parts of the country, 911 centers have consolidated and become private. Consolidated centers, in theory, have more oversight, better technological capabilities, and more efficient transfer systems. They’re also supposed to be cheaper than local 911 facilities. In the future, we will likely be seeing more of these consolidated systems. The current political climate has made it evident that privatization of public services is a priority for many regions.

However, consolidated 911 centers appear to be riddled with problems, especially in rural parts of the country.

In 2010, Seguin’s call would have been handled in Rutland, only 11 miles away. Elizabeth Adams, the site administrator, used to manage a staff of 16 full-time and seven part-time employees. Vermont had already consolidated down to four centers in 2000, so her staff needed to be intimately familiar with 25 percent of the state — including up-to-date knowledge on road closures during periods of heavy snowfall, detours, and areas without mobile connectivity.

The problem is exacerbated by inconsistent technology and connectivity issues. In Vermont, one of the most rural states in the country, you can lose a radio station around a corner. The state is littered with dead zones without cell service. Even radio communications suffer in remote parts of the state.

Uber might know exactly where you want to be picked up, but that technology isn’t available to 911 operators. Even in areas of the country known for technological innovations, cellphones do not always transmit location data. In Silicon Valley, California, precise location data was shared in only 10 to 37 percent of emergency calls in 2012.

The 911 emergency call scheme was designed to be used in a landline telephone system. Upgrading the tech without upgrading the hardware is like trying to install Windows 10 on a PC circa 1991.

1999 saw 26% of 911 calls originate from cell phones, while the number today has tripled to over 75%. With the signal bouncing off of cellphone towers all over the place, it can be more difficult to use a computer system to locate callers. The most reliable way to ensure 911 has the right address is to call from a landline, but even that isn’t flawless. Frequently, dispatchers must rely on descriptions of landmarks and other local information.

“[Often], the caller has no idea where they are and the technology is not there with cell companies,” said Adams. “Local knowledge absolutely matters when a caller can only cite a house color or what the street around them looks like or what they think a road or town is called. [In one case,] we had people trapped in a cave [who] didn’t know what town they were in.”

Especially because of the lagging technology, local knowledge is crucial. “Accuracy went downhill since local knowledge was not there anymore,” said Lucas Hall, a firefighter who worked out of Rutland County before and after consolidation. “I can recall one time that I could attribute a death to [dispatch consolidation]. Vermont State Police could not tell if the address was Route 30 North or Route 30 South. It took them over 10 minutes to figure it out. By the time it got figured out and we got on scene, the person was dead.”

Around the country, in addition to dispatchers no longer having local knowledge, they now have to work longer hours. In many cases, they have less required training than their predecessors.

Today, Vermont has two consolidated 911 centers — which, according to Adams, are short-staffed by at least 11 people. 911 centers in Washington, DC are staffed by people who do not always know the ins and outs of the city’s roads. Boston’s 911 calls sometimes go unanswered because there just aren’t enough people to answer the phones. In Denver, employees must work up to 16 hours a day. Connecticut experienced issues with their regionalization efforts and even reversed several consolidation decisions.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that there will be 3,000 fewer dispatcher positions in 2024 than there were in 2014. In 2010, the BLS projected a 10-year job growth rate of 12 percent. Clearly, the current trends of privatization and technological advancements have shifted that estimation. 

Even in the best conditions, 911 workers have increased risk for developing PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). When dispatchers are overworked, particularly in understaffed centers, they risk burnout.

Research has found that decreased shift rotations and shifts longer than eight hours are positively correlated with lengthier call times. “There have been several major medical incidents with remaining dispatchers [in Vermont] who are overworked and overstressed,” said Adams. Recently, a dispatcher passed out at her keyboard and needed an ambulance.

Becky Seguin said she doesn’t blame the dispatchers for what happened to her family, but rather the government officials who authorized the budget cuts.

Consolidation of 911 services has often been followed by privatization. Vermont appears to be going that direction under the guise of saving money, even though any economic advantage is negated when the cost of new office spaces and overtime pay is factored in. Vermont’s Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said in 2016 that he no longer wanted the responsibility of handling at least 75 percent of 911 calls. Under the new system, it isn’t clear who would be responsible for emergency calls as Flynn’s statement was refuted by Governor Peter Shumlin. If such a move were finalized, the burden on local municipalities could push the sector into privatization.

When dispatch jobs are privatized, there is always a shake-up in the organization and people lose their jobs. Those who keep their jobs no longer have the benefits of being a government employee. According to news reports spanning the past five years, private dispatch centers experience a high turnover rate, a lack of local knowledge, and communication failures. Even when they continue to be ran by the government, people still lose their jobs. In Vermont, at least 20 veteran dispatchers were laid off.

These changes are being made because governments are grappling with a budget crisis that has yet to ease up. Private companies, and private equity firms in particular, have capitalized on the budget gap and sought to fill the void with a for-profit business model. Regions that have made the move to private call centers have done so reluctantly. In Lawrence, New Jersey, council members who voted to transition to a privatized center have said they were not happy about what they had to do.

From callers to dispatchers to first responders, everyone is feeling the consequences of putting fewer resources into 911 services. It will take concerted efforts to ensure public safety is a higher priority than political maneuvering. Privatized emergency services might save the government money right now — but ultimately come at a steep cost to human life.

•   •   •

Originally published on The Development Set (now known as Bright Magazine) on May 7, 2017. Text is reprinted here as licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

How to cite this article:

Harlow, K. (2018). When You Call 911 and Nobody Picks Up. Bright Magazine. [online] Available at: https://brightthemag.com/when-you-call-911-and-nobody-picks-up-32ac8f7dc7fe [Accessed DD Mon YYYY].

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1 Comment

  1. William Lynn on December 13, 2017 at 9:27 am

    A great article…On what can happen when we “deregulate”…privatize…and things go wrong.

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