911: The Joke That Isn’t Funny Anymore

INQUIRER: Brenda Orr of Doylestown was trapped in a burning bed, immobilized by multiple sclerosis, when she dialed 911 on Jan. 29. Twenty-eight seconds passed before a Bucks County dispatcher answered Orr’s call. Then he put her on hold.

It took 26 more seconds for a second dispatcher to pick up.

“911. The bed is on fire,” Orr, 53, yelled into her phone.

By then a minute had elapsed since Orr had first dialed. A half-minute later, she spoke her final words before the phone went dead.

“The bed is fully inflamed,” she said.

Bucks County officials, acknowledging that Orr’s call had been mishandled, announced yesterday that 11 dispatchers and four supervisors had been disciplined for their roles in dealing with it.

Orr died in the quick-moving house fire. While a faster response by the dispatchers would not have saved her, “mistakes were made, and for those mistakes we are truly sorry,” said James F. Cawley, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners. Under county regulations, the phone should have beenanswered within 10 seconds, and Orr should not have been placed on hold.

emergency.jpgIn a dispatch center where answering the phone is a basic duty, 10 unoccupied dispatchers sat by and let it ring. Orr’s call finally was taken by a frustrated dispatcher who already was juggling an ambulance call. “While the phone was ringing six times, there were 10 people on duty who were capable of answering the phone call who failed to do so,” Cawley said. “That was wrong.” Had one of them answered, there would have been no need to put Orr on hold. All 10 were disciplined, along with the dispatcher who, by taking the call, violated rules by trying to handle two calls at once.

“911. Can you hold one second please?” the dispatcher is heard saying to Orr on a recording of the call.

“I can’t,” Orr responds. “This is an emergency, 911 emergency. . . . Bed on fire.” MORE

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