HARRIS COUNTY, Texas - The question is simple.
9-1-1, Do you need police, fire or ambulance?
But it couldn’t come soon enough for Richard Ishmon.
The former combat medic dialed 9-1-1, put his phone on speaker and began CPR on his mother’s chest.
I’m going to get help, he thought. I’m going to get help. They’re going to come through the gate.
“C’mon, momma,” he said to his family’s matriarch, 78 years young. “It’s going to be a couple of minutes. Just hang on.”
But it wasn’t a couple of minutes.
Ishmon sat on hold, waiting for more than 10 minutes for someone to answer his call to Harris County 9-1-1.
Flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey forced the Harris County 9-1-1 Emergency Center to relocate to the county’s northwest side. That relocation caused technical issues in the 9-1-1 dispatch center, causing lengthy hold times for those calling for help.
Berthinel Ishmon survived blood clots and breast cancer, floods and hurricanes. She was a great-grandmother fond of texting her great nieces and nephews. A tree of frames covered her living room wall as a reminder of her greatest importance in life: family.
Ishmon also believed in a sense of fairness and doing the right thing. She instilled that in her children. But her son believes in her final moments, she was wronged.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office put out a news release asking people to only call 9-1-1 if it’s a life-threatening emergency. It came days after KHOU 11 Investigates started looking into complaints that some callers to 9-1-1 were spending 5, 10, even 15 minutes stuck on hold. That’s before they even talked to a single dispatcher.
The Sheriff’s Office now says thousands of callers looking for help were likely affected. Jason Spencer, spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, said the trouble began when Hurricane Harvey drenched the city.
The county’s 9-1-1 center downtown flooded, forcing call-takers and dispatchers to move to temporary locations – sometimes in different places with backup equipment.
“We’ve had other technical difficulties that for a 36-hour period over the weekend required 9-1-1 call takers to take handwritten notes on every call that came in,” Spencer said.
The Sheriff’s Office couldn’t provide KHOU 11 Investigates numbers detailing how many callers spent minutes on hold since the storm. However, Spencer said last weekend 4,000 of the 7,000 9-1-1 calls were abandoned, meaning callers were likely on hold and then hung up.
These holds for life-saving help worry Jeff Hevey, Chief of Emergency Services District 48 near Katy. Hevey knows of at least eight times in the last 10 days 9-1-1 callers sat on hold, including a nurse at a pharmacy he said was on hold between 35 to 40 minutes for a person with stroke-like symptoms.
“We had another call at an apartment complex where the people were complaining to the paramedics, ‘Why did it take so long? I was on hold.’” Hevey said. “So the paramedic, while they were there, went ahead and called 9-1-1 and was on hold for 15 minutes.”
9-1-1’s goal in Harris County is to answer all calls in 10 seconds or less. Stories of 10-minute wait times and homes burning to the ground are unacceptable, says the Sheriff’s Office.
“We know these are life and death situations,” Spencer said. “We take it serious, and we’re addressing it.”
That includes adding people to take 9-1-1 calls and focusing on getting the 9-1-1 center back up and running hopefully in two weeks. Because of the issues, the Sheriff’s Office is asking people to only call 9-1-1 if it’s a life-threatening emergency.
And if you do need help and end up on hold, 9-1-1 says don’t hang up and call back. That will only move you to the back of the line and take longer to get through.
It’s a system Richard Ishmon used to believe in. He’s seen CPR and the help of EMS bring people back to life.
By the time help did arrive, he collapsed from exhaustion. His mother was gone.
“When you call 9-1-1, you expect to get through,” he said. “It’s definitely a lifeline.
He took the white napkin he’d been clinching and swiped at his eyes as his body shook.
“But this time, I don’t know what happened.”
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