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.
Gamez was explaining to me that Kix's first call would have been taken by a "911 or 311 call-taker."
"I am going to say 311 call-taker, even though they may not be in that capacity. They're trained like that. They wear different hats, and at different times they could be pulling off that 311 hat and putting on a 911 hat."
Wait a minute. You mean 911 call-takers are the same people as 311 call-takers?
"The same person," he said. "Exactly."
Now I am beginning to understand. I vowed to myself several years ago that I would go to my grave without ever calling 311 again. That's the sucker number, the one you call about a broken water main. It's the one with the 45-minute phone tree where they finally come on and say, "May I have your ad valorem property tax account number, please?"
Do you remember anybody ever telling us that 911 and 311 are now the same thing? I would have considered that very important information. By the way, I did a computer newspaper search back several years, and I sure couldn't find a hint of it.
Gamez said the two functions had been largely merged as "an efficiency." I would say that depends on your definition of efficiency.
Show you how dumb I am--before I started working on this I still thought 911 was the cops! I mean, what's next? You call 911, and you hear the colorful sounds and music of the bazaar in the background? "We are most please-ed to service your complainings, kind Texas sir."
Kix and the several agencies working on his complaint played phone tag all day. Finally at about 7:15 p.m., Kix received a call from the "expediters," who began asking him to repeat all his information--make, model, location, plates, etc. It was at this point that Kix went postal.
"I'm really sorry, ma'am, but I reported all this stuff this morning, and this has been an infuriating 10 hours. I have sat here and waited and waited. Nothing. Now I'm sort of guaranteed there's no way I can get my car back."
The expediter explained to Kix that the delay was his fault, for having failed to sit in one place all day until she called. "I personally called you back earlier at two different numbers you left with us, and I got somebody else's voice mail at both numbers," she said.
Kix's voice began a slow slide up the scale toward howl: "Regardless of the fact that my call was made this morning, you didn't call until tonight, and I just can't understand..."
"Sir," she interrupted, "I didn't get here until 2:30."
"I don't care!" he screamed. "This is [unintelligible] bureaucratic bullshit! My car has been stolen, and I have to fuckin' sit by the phone for four or five hours. That's bullshit! I gave you guys a phone number this morning. You guys wouldn't return the call because of the long distance, despite the fact I said it was the only number where you can reach me. I'm sorry I'm taking it out on you, but I'm telling you right now, I can't fucking believe this is how you guys operate with a stolen vehicle.
"I would hate to be shot in Dallas! I would fuckin' hate it!"
After a pause, she said, "Wouldn't you hate to be shot anywhere, sir?"
The end of this tale is that Kix's car was found a couple of weeks later. Not by Maybe-911. Not by the expediters. Not by Staff Review. And apparently not by Auto Theft.
No, his car was found by his parents in Iowa. They called Kix and said they had received a letter from the Dallas Police Auto Pound on Vilbig Road informing them that the car--a total wreck--was on the police impound lot.
Lieutenant Rick Andrews of the Auto Pound explained to me that a letter was sent to Kix's parents' address in Iowa, because that was the address to which the car was registered, based on its Vehicle Identification Number.
I asked this: Since Kix had left multiple contact phone numbers with Maybe-911-Maybe-Not and with the Expediter Section, all of which had been checked out by Staff Review and passed on to Auto Theft, how come nobody called him when the car came in?
"We don't read offense reports," he said.
They find the VIN, look up the registration, mail a letter. That's it.
As an older colleague, I felt compelled to offer Kix some advice on dealing with situations like these in the future. So often, I find that young people don't know how to work within the system. "Next time you need a car," I said, "steal one."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.