Emergency Dispatcher Not The First To Be Fired Over 4-Minute Delay

emergency dispatcher fired delayAn emergency dispatcher in Licking County, Ohio, is battling to get his job back after being fired in December over a four-minute delay in alerting firefighters to a burning home. Matt Wheeler did send firefighters to the home where a man was trapped inside, but apparently not fast enough for his employer, reports TV station WBNS in central Ohio.

It's stressful being on either side of a 911 call. Emergency dispatchers can't afford a five-minute daydream. A careless keystroke or a mental blip can end a person's life. While that didn't happen in this case, Wheeler already had three suspensions and two reprimands over his five-year career, so Licking County officials decided to fire him. His union, The Communications Workers of America, has filed a grievance on his behalf.

But delays can kill. A woman died in August 2008 from a blood clot in her lungs, after a 911 operator sent emergency crews to the wrong address. The operator misheard Dukes, who was struggling to breathe, and sent help to Wells Street, north of Atlanta, instead of Wales Drive, in Atlanta proper. Operators are supposed to determine the cell tower from where the telephone signal is coming from, and because of the error, it took 25 minutes for help to finally reach Dukes. The dispatcher was fired.

In San Antonio, Texas, the problem was thornier, because so many streets have nearly identical names. The computer-aided dispatch system there couldn't always differentiate between them, and an error in December 2010 sent firefighters responding to a house fire to the opposite side of town. (The elderly couple who resided at the house were fine, but in the 19 minutes it took for help to arrive, their home was destroyed). Firefighters warned that it was only a matter of time before this problem caused loss of life.

Controversy erupted over the behavior of another dispatcher in May 2008, following the murder of a University of Wisconsin-Madison student, Brittany Zimmerman. The 21-year-old had called 911 before she was stabbed and beaten to death in her apartment, but the call was disconnected. The operator didn't hear anything that made her think it was emergency, so she moved on to another call. Critics said it should have prompted a police response, or at least a call back.

This incident shows the great stakes that 911 operators cope with every day. They need to work with lightning speed and absolute accuracy, but also a sensitivity to what could be an emergency, when the clues are unclear. An error on one side can waste the precious time of emergency responders. An error on the other can cost a person's life.

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