911 Callers Put On Hold While Oak Cliff Home Burns

At about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, Dora Fuller and her family were woken by smoke alarms. They quickly rushed from the home, on Berwick Avenue in Oak Cliff and called 911. They got a recording telling them all dispatchers were busy. So they hung up and tried again. And again. So did neighbors, but it took several minutes -- three and some change, according to a Dallas Police Department review -- for someone to get through. That person didn't know the address, and it took another three minutes before dispatchers spoke with someone who did and alerted firefighters, who arrived at the scene a shade after 12:45 a.m. Meanwhile, Fuller's house was destroyed.

The family was understandably pissed by the delayed response, as was Councilman Dwaine Caraway. When's one home is burning to the ground, one expects a quick response from 911 and firefighters, particularly when the fire station is some 500 feet away.

Dallas Fire-Rescue and DPD defended their response. DFR spokesman Joel Lavender told The Dallas Morning News that firefighters were on scene three-and-a-half minutes after they were alerted, "well within the response time we aim for."

DPD said it had beefed up staffing at the 911 center for Independence Day, from nine to 13, in anticipation of high call volume but that a spike in calls around the time of the fire left many callers on hold. The department explains the process thusly:

When a spike in calls for service occurs, there is a recording that answers the line when all operators are busy. The recording advises the caller not to hang up and to wait for the next available operator. The capacity of the recording line is thirteen callers in excess of the number of 911 call takers. In this case, if all thirteen 911 callers were busy, an additional thirteen callers, for a total of twenty-six, could be connected either to an operator or on hold. At one point during the fifteen minute period between 12:30 am and 12:45 a.m. there were forty-four calls holding.

A call by call review revealed that a 911 call first came in from the area of the fire at 12:36:09 a.m. The caller hung up prior to reaching a 911 operator. When this occurs, the 911 operator will call back the individual that dialed 911. When the 911 operator did this, they reached the caller's voice mail. Six additional 911 hang-up calls came in from the area during the next three minutes, several within seconds of each other. During this time, 911 operators attempted to call back two additional times and each time were connected to voicemail. At 12:39:27 a.m., a caller dialed 911 and hung up prior to reaching an operator; the operator called back two seconds later at 12:39:29 a.m. and reached a caller who then reported the fire on Berwick. The call was transferred to Dallas Fire Rescue immediately. Unfortunately, this caller was unable to provide an exact location for the fire. An additional 911 call came in and was transferred to DFR. This caller was able to provide an accurate location and DFR assigned their first unit to respond to the location at 12:42:21 a.m. This unit arrived at the location of the fire two minutes, forty-two seconds later at 12:45:03 a.m. Dallas Fire Rescues' goal is to arrive at a fire within five minutes, thirty seconds of receipt of a 911 call. In this case, 911 first became aware of the fire at 12:39:29 a.m. and DFR arrived at the fire at 12:45:03 a.m., five minutes and thirty-four seconds later.

So if only the callers had waited patiently on the line for the next available dispatcher the fire trucks would have rolled more quickly. That might have been the most rational thing to do, but who is going to calmly wait on hold while their house burns to the ground? Most people in that situation are going to hang up and try again.

Maybe this was, as DPD suggests, a fluke rather than a failure of the city's 911 system, and maybe it is untenable to plan for 70 simultaneous calls. But It seems like there should be a fairly straightforward way to avoid such a situation, maybe software that automatically alerts first responders when a flood of 911 calls come from a particular area, maybe an automated dispatch system that kicks in when the human dispatchers are busy, rather than a hold message.

Whatever the solution is, it will be cold comfort to Fuller.