DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – A home in south Dallas was destroyed early Wednesday morning, leaving a family devastated. But questions remain after witnesses said that emergency response time was slow and 911 services could not be reached. The incident happened just after midnight in the 1900 block of Berwick Avenue.

“There was a fire that started in the back of the house,” said Melanie Harper, a relative of those who lived in the home. “My sister and her husband was awakened by the smoke detector and realized that there was a fire started.” All family members were able to get out of the burning home safely, well before firefighters arrived on the scene.

“We’re very dissatisfied with the response of the 911 call and the dispatch of the fire department,” explained Harper. “It took them at least about 15 minutes to get here, and by that time the home was consumed. It’s just right around the corner, and if there was a better response, sure, there would have been some damage, but it wouldn’t have been destroyed. It’s destroyed.”

Neighbors tried calling 911 to report the fire, but said that the line was either busy or calls were unable to get through. One resident even ran over to the fire department building to ring the bell. And still, witnesses said, response time was incredibly slow.

The family lost nearly everything in the fire. All that remains is a few family photos recovered from firefighters on the scene. “We’ve been here since 1974,” said Harper, “and there are a lot of memories.”

Wednesday afternoon the Dallas Police Department sent out the following press release:

July 4th Fire Incident

On July 4, 2012 at about 12:36 a. m., a house fire occurred in the 1900 block of Berwick in Dallas. Between 12:30 a.m. and 12:45 a.m. a total of 177 calls came into the 911 center.

When a spike in calls for service occurs, there is a recording that answers the line when all operators are busy. The recording advises the caller not to hang up and to wait for the next available operator. The capacity of the recording line is thirteen callers in excess of the number of 911 call takers. In this case, if all thirteen 911 callers were busy, an additional thirteen callers, for a total of twenty-six, could be connected either to an operator or on hold. At one point during the fifteen minute period between 12:30 am and 12:45 a.m. there were forty-four calls holding.

A call by call review revealed that a 911 call first came in from the area of the fire at 12:36:09 a.m. The caller hung up prior to reaching a 911 operator. When this occurs, the 911 operator will call back the individual that dialed 911. When the 911 operator did this, they reached the caller’s voice mail. Six additional 911 hang-up calls came in from the area during the next three minutes, several within seconds of each other. During this time, 911 operators attempted to call back two additional times and each time were connected to voicemail. At 12:39:27 a.m., a caller dialed 911 and hung up prior to reaching an operator; the operator called back two seconds later at 12:39:29 a.m. and reached a caller who then reported the fire on Berwick. The call was transferred to Dallas Fire Rescue immediately. Unfortunately, this caller was unable to provide an exact location for the fire. An additional 911 call came in and was transferred to DFR. This caller was able to provide an accurate location and DFR assigned their first unit to respond to the location at 12:42:21 a.m. This unit arrived at the location of the fire two minutes, forty-two seconds later at 12:45:03 a.m. Dallas Fire Rescues’ goal is to arrive at a fire within five minutes, thirty seconds of receipt of a 911 call. In this case, 911 first became aware of the fire at 12:39:29 a.m. and DFR arrived at the fire at 12:45:03 a.m., five minutes and thirty-four seconds later.

It appears that the spike in calls during this time frame contributed to the caller(s) being unable to immediately reach a 911 call taker. The police department had already anticipated that call load could spike due to the holiday and had increased the number of 911 call takers from nine to thirteen by holding over several call takers from the previous shift. This number is consistent with the amount of call takers on-duty at this time last July 4th.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation by DFR.

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