911 Nightmare Uncovered in Investigative Report

911 Nightmare Uncovered in Investigative Report

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Debbie Dujanovic Reporting
Produced by Kelly Just
KSL has uncovered case after case of 911 nightmares! For weeks, investigative reporter Debbie Dujanovic has pursued an inside tip about Valley Emergency Communications, 911 calls and a system that's failing us.

It doesn't matter the day, the time or the emergency, panicked 911 callers are being left in limbo. So we investigated. A national organization, local law enforcement and now the 911 center itself says there's a huge problem.

Call 911 and you expect help right away. Instead you get this: "You've reached 911. Please do not hang up. Stay on the line for the next available operator."

Susan Mathis called in the middle of the night to report a loud fight outside. She told KSL, "If those men had been in my house, I would've been dead. It was just a recording, it wasn't even a person."

It was the same message for Adrian Brewer and KSL reporter Courtney Orton. Her husband owns a sandwich shop and they were trying to revive a teen passed out on the floor.

"It blows me away that you can get a message like that when you call 911," Orton said.

In David Hale's case, one of the worst we found, he thought his buddy was dying! He called five times! KSL obtained the recordings of those frantic minutes on hold.

"Hello. Hello."
"Oh my God, call 911."
"I am. Hello?"
"Try calling 911."
"This is a joke. How can it not come through? Oh my God. Where's the dispatcher? This is a joke."

No one ever picked up for him. In desperation, David finally found a phone book and dialed the police department, so his friend survived.

You might expect jammed 911 lines during a major emergency, but the center's internal memos and our investigation reveal it doesn't matter if it's a busy time or not. Calls made at at 3 a.m., 11 a.m., and 8 p.m. were all put on hold with people waiting minutes for a live person. Plus, the message gives no idea how long you might be holding.

Richard Taylor, President of the National Association of State 911 Administrators, said, "I don't think it would be acceptable in most centers in the country today."

That national 911 association pointed to more problems. The message plays just once, then nothing. Callers think they've been disconnected and call back.

Taylor adds, "It is not clear, nor is it long enough for me to understand."

So we took specific examples to Valley Emergency, like this one: with her husband tearing up their home, a woman called 911 and tried 12 times to get through.

We asked William Harry, with Valley Emergency, if that woman did something wrong. He replied, "Yes, if you call the center and get the message, 'You've reached the 911 center, do not hang up,' don't hang up. You'll be attended to as soon as an operator is available. If you do hang up and call back, it goes to the end of the line."

The center agrees it has a problem with not enough staff to keep up with the calls. So they spent $1 million on a new system, figuring it was better to put folks on hold than to just let the phone ring. Now calls end up in a queue.

Harry said, "Going into a queue is a misnomer, in that it's not really being placed on hold, that's just the way our telephone system answers the calls when there are no call-takers available."

Salt Lake County Undersheriff Beau Babka has big concerns. Not only does Valley Emergency answer the county's 911 calls, but when the sheriff's office had its own medical emergency, its 911 call ended up on hold.

"Something has to be mitigated here, because we just can't have it, we can't have it," Babka said.

After we met with Valley Emergency, it made changes. As of today, the message is more clear, with better instructions. It will also launch an ad campaign to educate the public. It had already planned to add 11 call-takers.

Even so, due to a variety of concerns, Salt Lake County is developing plans to answer its own 911 calls.

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