DALLAS - Three times, Michaelle Cohen called 911.
Three times, she was put on hold – the longest time for more than 30 minutes – as she tried to get help for six-month-old, Brandon Alex.
In a telephone interview, she says she was thinking. “It's 911. I shouldn’t be on hold. Maybe if I call right back, I'll get through faster. Maybe it's just a glitch.”
That night, March 11, more than 400 callers ended up on hold for an average of 38 minutes. It was a perfect storm driven by T-Mobile glitches, an understaffed 911 call center and an outdated 911 infrastructure.
The day after WFAA first reported the news of Brandon Alex’s death, T-Mobile sent its top engineers to Dallas. T-Mobile has since made several important tweaks to their system including turning off a safety feature that caused duplicate calls to the 911 call center whenever a caller didn’t connect with an operator. The city has also added a dozen call takers per day, as well as a dozen people to help with call backers.
City officials refuse to discuss how many positions are budgeted and how many are filled.
City officials say the situation was much improved this past weekend in the call center. The city met its goal of answering 90 percent of 911 calls within 10 seconds on Friday and Saturday. But on Sunday, the city missed that goal, answering only 82 percent of calls within 10 seconds. That was because 23 percent called in sick, a city release said.
Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association, says like much of the department, 911 call takers are underpaid and overworked. He is critical of the city’s approach of having call takers work excessive amounts of overtime to try to fill the shortage of manpower.
“They’re going to get to the point where they say enough is enough, which is already happening,” he said. “We’re training them in 911 just to see them turn around and leave the city of Dallas to go work for another city that probably pays them more and the workload isn’t as much," said Mata.
On the night Brandon died, Cohen was taking care of Brandon while Bridget Alex, who says she adopted him, attended a funeral for her nephew.
Cohen says that on the night of Brandon’s death, she had given him a bottle and put him to bed on a futon. She says he typically slept on that futon and knew how to get out of it. Cohen says she went to take a shower and came back to find Brandon on the floor. His breathing was shallow, she said.
“It just looked like he was sleeping really hard,” she says. “It didn’t seem like he had any other injuries. He was just breathing really light.”
Cohen called 911.
When she was put on hold, she hung up after less than a minute and called back.
She was on hold for more than 8 minutes when she decided to hang up and call Alex to let her know what was going on. She called 911 again. She was hold for more than 30 minutes.
While she was on hold, she says she was doing CPR on Brandon and praying that Brandon would be OK.
“I just felt like everything I did wasn’t enough,” Cohen said. “I was so frustrated. I was crying and I was mad.”
Cohen never made contact with a 911 operator. Alex drove home and took Brandon to the hospital.
“I understand all jobs have a short staff, but that’s not an excuse for 911,” Cohen said. “I can understand at Walmart. I can understand at the dollar store. I can understand anywhere else, but not 911.”
It’s not the first time that staffing in 911 has fallen to unacceptable levels.
Dallas police had beefed up the staffing of the 911 call center after the 2012 murder of Deanna Cook. She was strangled by her husband while she was on the phone with a 911 operator. Her death revealed that the 911 center was dramatically understaffed and couldn’t keep up with the call load.
Mayor Mike Rawlings acknowledged last week that the city dropped the ball on keeping the 911 call center appropriately staffed.
The city also now says more than $2 million in updates to its 911 infrastructure and dispatch systems are in the works for this year.
“It's like déjà vu all over again isn't it,” Mata says. “We're not fixing the problem. We're patching them. There's a big difference there: antiquated software, antiquated equipment and low manpower. This is a common theme.”
Some have questioned why Cohen didn’t drive Brandon to the hospital or run outside for help. She says she didn’t have a car. She says she was just so focused on Brandon and getting through to 911.
“People can say, ‘what if, what if’ but when you’re in that situation, it’s totally different,” she said.
Brandon was buried today. Cohen was out of town and unable to attend. She says she is left devastated by his death.
“I can’t touch my godson anymore," she said. “I can’t kiss on him. I can’t love on him. I can’t play with him anymore.”
The cause of Brandon’s death is still pending.
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