- The 911 emergency calling system has been in service since 1999, and millions of calls are made each year
- Generally, dialing 911 is reliable, but a recent incident in Pittsburgh shows this it isn't always so
- There are things we all can do - citizens and officials alike - to make it more trustworthy and reliable
Since 1999, we've learned and taught our children to call 911 when we need help from the police, fire department, or emergency medical services or paramedics. It's estimated that over 270,000 emergency 911 calls are made each day in the US.
For the most part, calling 911 is reliable, but not always.
Failure in Pittsburgh
In early February 2010, while a snow storm practically buried the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Curtis Mitchell was in severe pain. He suffered from pancreatitis, and he'd spent several days in the hospital in January.
Mitchell and his girlfriend called 911, but no one showed up until 30 hours later. He died at home.
It's not as though all communications failed. In fact, records show Mitchell and his girlfriend made 10 separate 911 calls; 911 operators called them four times; and there were at least 12 calls between 911 operators and paramedics. There were ambulances close by on two occasions, and a third ambulance made it to within several hundred feet from his home.
So what happened?
- The weather hampered some efforts. Twice the snow prevented ambulances from crossing a small bridge to get to Mitchell's home. He was told he'd have to walk to the ambulances, which were about one-quarter mile away
- There was poor communication between 911 operators during shift-changes, and it appears no one understood Mitchell's call for help was hours old
- When one ambulance made it across the bridge and was about 100 yards from Mitchell's home, the paramedics made no effort to go and get him
Cases like Mitchell's don't happen too often, and thankfully so. But there are some problems common in cities across the US. For example, it's taking longer for emergency personnel to respond to 911 calls from San Diego, California to New York City. And, after reading about Mitchell's tragedy, it should be no surprise that Pittsburgh's 911 response time is below the national standard: 90% of 911 calls for paramedics are supposed to arrive at life-threatening emergencies within eight minutes.
You've probably heard or read about other problems, like:
- Long hold times before callers even speak to 911 operators
- Operators who are rude or don’t seem to be listening to callers
- Emergency responders being sent to the wrong address
911 operators, the officials who run local 911 operations, and emergency personnel are, of course, human, and mistakes should be expected. Budget cuts in cities all over the country impact the quality of 911 services, too.
When things go wrong, lawsuits are almost certain to follow. As a general rule, cities and counties have a duty to keep you and other citizens safe. And when they provide services like police, fire, and paramedic services, they run into legal problems when those services are done poorly. Like it or not, sometimes these lawsuits are needed. They help make sure whatever went wrong doesn't go wrong again.