By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Remind me what the 911 emergency call system is for. Emergencies, right?
For example, you walk out to the parking lot, and your car has been stolen. So you call 911. They get right on it. That's the theory.
Now let's talk about the fact. A guy I work with called 911 in Dallas to report his car stolen. It took all day and into the evening before the Dallas Police Department would even accept his report. As far as I can tell, three separate bureaucratic entities had to make the sign of the cross before any actual cops were notified.
Maybe you're going to beat up on me for making a big deal out of a co-worker's car theft. But sometimes the best stories are right beneath your nose. This has been a real education for me. Nothing I had assumed to be true of 911 is, in fact, true.
Start with 911. The phone number. You dial it. You assume you're talking to 911.
Assume again, Kemosabe.
At 9 a.m. on October 6, Paul Kix, my co-worker, looked out on the company lot and saw a pile of shattered glass where his car used to be. He called 911. At least he thought he did. In working on this story, I believe I have discovered the existence of an entire new government agency, heretofore unknown to the public, which I shall call "Maybe-911-Maybe-Not."
We'll get back to that. In the meantime, after several conversations with Maybe-911, the Kix auto theft case was passed on later that morning to another agency I also never knew existed, called the "Expediter Section." This is an office full of civilians who expedite 911 calls.
Let me just make an observation here. I believe most people would assume that 911 should be, by its nature, extremely committed to expediting. Some people might even suggest that if you need a separate staff to expedite your 911 calls, you have a problem with your 911 calls.
Based on tapes of Kix's phone conversations with the expediters, a lot of what they do is to ask for all of the same information you already gave to 911, all over again.
From the Expediter Section, the Kix auto theft case was passed on to another group I'd never heard of called "Staff Review." Staff Review is yet another group of civilians, and their job is to review the work of the expediters and make sure the expediters have properly reviewed the work of Maybe-911.
I was not able to determine at what point the Kix auto theft case actually reached the area of the police department we call "Auto Theft." I know that Kix was still on the phone with the expediters at 7:15 p.m. on the day he first reported his car stolen, so it's safe to assume it didn't get to Auto Theft until the next day.
In the meantime, doper morons have been joy-riding all over town in Paul Kix's car, smashing it full of dents, flatting the tires, doing who knows what with it. I have an image in my mind of crackheads blowing through red lights, bouncing off fire hydrants, mowing down shrubbery and small mammals, screaming and heaving empty wine bottles and used syringes out the window.
But don't worry, Paul. Staff Review is on the case!
Meanwhile, I have all the 911 tapes, and they provide a heart-rending saga. We hear Kix, normally a well-mannered, self-contained young man, as he devolves over the hours into a raving lunatic.
The day begins badly when a Maybe-911 operator takes all of his information and then tells him to stay by a telephone for four hours so that someone can call and take all of his information.
Kix can't sit by a land line, because he has a dentist's appointment. He gives the operator his cell number, which is a Phoenix area code. He bought the phone there before moving to Dallas.
The operator has bad news: "Being that it's a long-distance cell number, we're not going to be able to call you back on the cell phone number, because they won't let us make a collect call."
Kix tells her he can't get to his office phone for two hours. She says, "If you miss the call, you're going to have to call us back and get back on our list."
Back on our list. Ominous words.
Assistant Fire Chief Roland R. Gamez, who is over 911, told me that the 911 operator who told Kix she could not call him long-distance on his cell phone was mistaken. Gamez said that he personally established a specific policy that operators should make return calls to long-distance cells, because of the number of people who have them.
"It doesn't matter to me," Gamez said. "If someone comes in who is visiting from New York and they are over here in the city limits of Dallas, they are a customer, and we will make that long-distance call."
He said the operator's goof might be understandable, stacked up against the "4 million phone calls" his staff deals with every year. But then he mentioned something that I thought might be an even more likely explanation of the mistake.