13 Undercover looks at mistakes some 911 call-takers make and why they're still on the job

13 Undercover looks at mistakes some 911 call-takers make and why they're still on the job
November 14, 2013 8:32:43 PM PST
When you're in a life-threatening emergency every second counts, so you call 911 for help. But as 13 Undercover has discovered, you may not always get the help you need.

Call takers at the Houston Emergency Center answer more than 3 million 911 calls for help a year. But we found many of those call-takers who make mistakes, putting lives at risk, are still here on the job.

911 Caller: "There's a daycare on fire. I was picking up my kids and it's already up in flames. When I just passed here it was smoking, and it's already in flames, and it's a daycare, and nobody knows if there's kids."

The call was horrifying: a daycare on fire.

A daycare worker and others flooded 911 with calls for help last December.

"I told them, 'I think there's a fire,' and told them 12913 Almeda Genoa and she said, 'Yeah, yeah,' because other people had been calling because obviously they saw smoke. And she said, 'We have it,'" daycare employee Winnie Topp said.

But she says fire trucks dispatched to put out the fire took too long to get there.

"Fifteen to 20 minutes before they made it here. They wanted to dispute that, and I said, 'No, there's no way they were here in under eight minutes,'" Topp said.

The Houston Emergency Center claims the response time was six minutes.

The response was delayed because it turns out the 911 call-taker sent fire trucks to the wrong address.

Luckily, no children were inside at the time.

There was, however, some confusion over the exact address.

Dispatcher: "What is the location?"
Caller: "It's, um, Allen Genoa. Allen Genoa. Um, the address is, oh, I can't even see it no more because of the smoke."

Supervisors wrote the call-taker was "inattentive" and "this error caused a delay and caused emergency units to respond to an incorrect location."

That 911 call-taker is still on the job, despite being disciplined numerous times before, including another incident involving a wrong address in 2006.

Houston Emergency Center disciplinary records detail instances of improper procedure and misconduct over the past three years, including call-takers hanging up too soon on people, failing to properly dispatch help, and several cases where emergency services were sent to incorrect addresses.

In fact, one dispatcher incorrectly sent help to the wrong address three times in one shift. That call-taker later voluntarily accepted a demotion almost two months later after dispatching to wrong addresses two more times.

And there's this example...

Caller: "We are in a hotel room, and someone just tried to break in here, force the door open. And we're scared to get out. We don't know if they're out there or not."
Dispatcher: "Who's trying to get in there? Do you know?"
Woman: "Some man."

The dispatcher promises police are on the way but incorrectly coded the call as just a suspicious person. Thirty minutes later, still no police, according to the frightened caller.

That call-taker had a long history of mistakes -- reprimanded 11 times since 2005 for mishandling 911 calls. He finally resigned after the hotel incident.

"I agree that there are some that continue to not follow the proper procedures," said Joe Laud with the Houston Emergency Center.

Laud says its difficult to fire call-takers who make repeated mistakes because their procedures give them several chances to correct errors before being finally terminated.

Laud also says they only get about a dozen complaints of mishandled calls a year, although supervisors also monitor employees and cite when they don't following procedures.

"It's those type of situations that we have to follow our procedures," Laud said.

"And the procedures don't allow you to fire them?" we asked.

"Well we evaluate each penalty, each discipline," he said.

Yet not firing call-takers who make continual mistakes doesn't make sense to those who've reached out for help.

"To put more people in danger? Especially when it comes to children? There's just no way it should have taken that long. There's just no way," Topp said.

Because of our investigation, the Houston Emergency Center says it will go through what it calls a "mass evaluation" to correct any kind of improper procedures for the future.

Here's what you can do if you have to call 911, to make sure you get help: First, stay calm and know the exact location of the emergency. Wait for the call-taker to ask you questions. If you don't feel like they're handling the call properly, ask to talk to a supervisor or call back and talk to another call-taker.

Find Brian on Facebook at ABC13BrianCollister or on Twitter at @BrianCollister

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