Holding for help: 911 calls can go unanswered for minutes

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by Jeremy Rogalski/Investigative Reporter

khou.com

Posted on November 16, 2012 at 12:53 AM

Updated Friday, Nov 16 at 1:00 AM

HOUSTON—If you have a police, fire or medical emergency, every second matters for help to arrive. But in unincorporated Harris County, the I-Team discovered that seconds sometimes turn into minutes for a 911 operator just to answer your call.

It was the night of the Fourth of July, but it wasn’t fireworks Carolyn and James Johnson were hearing.

“Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang,” Carolyn Johnson said of the barrage of bullets spraying their East Harris County home.

The couple showed off at least a half-dozen patched up holes where high-performance ammunition pelted their walls and roof.

“I’m petrified!” Carolyn Johnson recalled.

So naturally, they picked up the phone and dialed 911. But that’s when the Johnsons claim they were dealt another blow.

“It rings, it rings, it rings, it rings, and it takes them anywhere from three to five minutes just to answer the call,” James Johnson said.

The Sheriff’s Office claims it only took 1minute and 43 seconds to answer the call. But with bullets flying at their home, the Johnsons said it felt like an eternity for a live human being to take their call and ask, “What’s wrong?”

So how long should it take? The national standard according to the National Emergency Number Association, NENA, is answer in ten seconds or less, 90 percent of the time.

So how often does Harris County 911 hit—or not hit—that goal? Well the I-Team discovered while it makes the mark most of the time, when Harris County misses that 10-second goal, it can miss big.
 
We found calls taking a minute and a half, two minutes, two and half, three minutes, even four minutes for someone to answer and ask, ‘What’s your emergency?’”

The I-Team sat down with Monica Williamson, the Harris County Sheriff’s 911 coordinator.

I-Team: “When you look at the numbers, should the public be concerned?”

Williamson: “Should they be concerned? Their answer, their call will be answered, it will be answered.”

But this is a business where seconds matter.

“This is life and death,” said Charles Carter. He’s a former police officer and firefighter, as well as a certified paramedic, 911 instructor and an expert court witness.

“Whether it’s medical, fire, police, it really doesn’t matter, seconds are critical and certainly minutes can make the difference in life and death,” said Carter.

And his take on the Harris County 911 records we asked him to review?

“Those are critical documents and right now they don’t speak well,” Carter said.

In fact, records show Harris County has been short staffed for more than a year. It was under a hiring freeze, but even when that was lifted back in March:

“You lose them, you bring them (in), you’re constantly training them, you lose some, retirement, what have you, it’s a constant revolving door,” Williamson said.

But Williamson maintains Harris County compensated by using overtime hours to cover the manpower shortage.

“Has a citizen been jeopardized? Never. The quality of service has never been jeopardized,” she said.

But expert Carter said relying on extra hours is a common mistake.

“Unacceptable.  I mean, there are all kinds of studies showing inefficiency and fatigue being a real problem after a certain amount of hours,” he said, referring to
the effect of working more than 6 to 8 hours on 911 operators.

None of which helps the Johnson family or their bullet-ridden home.

“It irritates me,” Carolyn Johnson said.

“Somebody is going to end up dying because of this stuff,” James Johnson said.

Turns out, the Johnson’s say a rowdy neighbor was to blame for all the gunfire.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Department chalks the delay up to an unusually large number of calls due to the Fourth of July holiday.

As for the staffing issue, the Sheriff’s Department says it has six open positions and is hiring.

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