In an Emergency Can You Depend on Dialing 911

  • 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

911 Problems

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.

Although there's no report of it yet, it's likely that someone will file a wrongful death or some other lawsuit against the city of Pittsburgh over Mitchell's death. To be sure, the lawsuit won't bring Mitchell back to his loved ones, but it should convince the city fix its 911 problems.

It should be stressed, there are more 911 success stories than failures. There are all sorts of stories where 911 operators save lives. But there's room for improvement.

What We All Can Do

Citizens and government officials can take steps to help improve the quality of 911 services. For example, those in charge of 911 systems should follow the actions planned by Pittsburgh officials in the wake of Mitchell's death:

  • Make sure there's proper communication between and among 911 operators when they change shifts so that calls like Mitchell's don't slip though the cracks
  • Make it clear to emergency responders that every caller should get personal service, even if it means walking in the snow and carrying them to the ambulance. A new Pittsburgh policy now requires paramedics and firefighters to knock on callers' doors

In addition, there should be periodic reviews and tests on the 911 system's operations.

As for you and me, we can help improve our 911 systems by:

  • Calling only in emergency situations. Non-emergency calls should be made to the local police or fire dispatch center
  • Don't "test" your phone line by calling 911. It ties up an operator and may bump a caller with a true emergency
  • If you call 911 by mistake, don't hang up. The operator will assume there's an emergency and you're unable to speak or complete the call. In most cases, a police officer or ambulance, or both, will be sent to your house, making them unavailable for a true emergency
  • If emergency personnel don't show up within 10 minutes or so, call again, or ask a neighbor to call. Be sure to explain you've called before and are still in need of assistance
  • If you or someone in your home has a chronic or ongoing illness, have a secondary plan for getting to a hospital in case 911 responders are delayed. If you call 911 and later decide not to wait, have someone call 911 to cancel your call
  • The next time officials ask you and other taxpayers to help pay for 911 system upgrades or new equipment, think carefully about it. The fact is, equipment like phones and computers get old and need to be replaced. Also, more funding means more 911 operators and responders, which means faster response times if and when you need them

No one plans on having an emergency, but when they happen, we confidently call 911 for help. That's the way it should be, too. It's not a perfect system, but usually it works well. When it doesn't and there's a tragedy, we should take a look at what we've got and how it works and then find ways to make it better.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • Is there any legal way to force our city to test our 911 system for speed, accuracy, and overall effectiveness?
  • I heard wrongful death lawsuits can be filed only by relatives of the person who died. Is that true?
  • Successful lawsuits against the city and county end up causing our taxes to go up, right?
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