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Death Prompts Overhaul In Dallas 911 Call Center

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DALLAS (AP) - Deanna Cook frantically called 911 to report she was being attacked by her ex-husband, only to have police knock on her door nearly an hour later and leave when no one answered. Two days later her family discovered her slain in her overflowing bathtub.

On another recent evening, a person waiting at the scene of a wreck had placed several 911 calls with no answer when another vehicle hit him, breaking his arm.

And earlier this summer, several callers trying to report a house fire eventually hung up when a recording told them to wait for the next operator.

These are the kinds of mishaps and delays the city of Dallas has faced as it copes with a staff shortage in one of the nation’s busiest emergency call centers. The Cook case in particular has gained national attention since her death in August and sparked heavy scrutiny on a call center enduring a spate of similar incidents in which residents say their emergency calls were mishandled or put on hold.

Cook’s family has sued the city and even questioned why the 32-year-old woman would rely on the city’s help in a life or death situation.

“Why didn’t she call my cousins?” said Cook’s sister Valecia Battle in a recent interview. “Why didn’t she call my mother? Why didn’t she call somebody who would get there with some sense of urgency?”

While experts say delays and mistakes sometimes happen in many of the country’s biggest emergency call centers, the publicity generated from Cook’s death has prompted a flurry of changes from Dallas leaders who acknowledge operators are sometimes forced to work long hours and handle an overwhelming volume of calls. Officials have hired more operators, changed how calls are logged and assured residents that their 911 calls won’t go ignored.

The operator who handled Cook’s call Aug. 17 was briefly suspended for not clearly stating to officers the urgent situation. Another who spoke to Cook’s mother two days later was fired for telling her she could not immediately report her daughter missing.

Police Chief David Brown, who called the handling of Cook’s call unacceptable, and Mayor Mike Rawlings both have said other cities also deal with wait times and an occasionally delayed response. But they agree improvements must be made.

“I think we’re going to get better 30 days from now, but we have to have that sense of urgency this Saturday night when calls are coming in that we’re answering them all and we’re being responsive,” Rawlings said.

City officials say Dallas has responded to about 88 percent of calls this year in 10 seconds or less, just short of a nationally accepted standard of 90 percent. They did not quantify how long delays were for the other 12 percent of calls.

Other statistics show the workload in Dallas has been more severe in recent years compared to other large cities. The average call volume for each employee in large 911 call centers — with populations served ranging from about 300,000 to 1.5 million people — was about 12,000 per year, according to a 2005 study by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials. Based on Dallas police data, the average number of calls for each employee in the center is on pace for more than three times that figure this year.

Dallas officials acknowledge that the call center, which has 90 staff positions authorized, has had an average of 65 employees for the last 12 months. But Brown said earlier this month that he was moving 24 sworn officers to the call center operation and authorizing more overtime.

Angela Herod-Graham, the operator fired after taking the call from Cook’s mother, describes a hectic operation in the call center as well as the long hours some staff members work to cover busy periods. She said she was working a 16-hour double shift when she took the call that led to her firing.

But she said she was willing to work such hours to help a short-staffed center that is often deluged by calls on busy weekend nights and when a major crime occurs — particularly in view of dozens of people.

“You’ve got 50 people calling at one time,” she said. “That could tie up the phones if something like that is happening.”

One of those calls came after midnight on July 4 when many people witnessed a house fire and tried to call 911 but got a recording telling them to wait for the next operator. Police say many of them hung up before an operator could handle their calls. The department didn’t offer any estimate on the amount of time the calls were on hold but did say authorities responded five and a half minutes after they had the home’s location.

And earlier this month, a man who pulled over on a south Dallas highway tried calling 911 after his car was hit from behind. Kelvin Crowe said his first three tries got a busy signal. The fourth time he heard the same recording. Crowe said he had gotten out of the car when another vehicle slammed into the car behind him, which hit him. He broke his arm and injured a leg.

“If they’d have picked the phone up, I wouldn’t have got hurt,” Crowe said.

Crowe and others have questioned whether the police would have treated them the same if they weren’t calling from less affluent parts of the city — an allegation Rawlings denies.

Still, Cook’s family still wants answers.

Her relatives have filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging the Police Department, city and others failed to protect Cook’s constitutional rights by not providing an adequate response to the call. Attorneys for Dallas have asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

The family’s lawyer, Aubrey Pittman, said he had reviewed records of police interviews that make it clear officers weren’t made aware of the urgency of the call. Pittman says the two officers stopped at another burglary call and then at 7-Eleven before heading to Cook’s home.

For the next two days her mother and sisters didn’t hear from Cook but decided to go to her house when she missed Sunday church. After finding water pouring from under the garage door Cook’s mother called 911 and was told she must check local hospitals and the jail before reporting her daughter missing.

“And that’s when I took some shears that were outside and tried to break the glass,” said another sister, Karletha Cook-Gundy. “And I told my mom, they’re not going to send nobody. We’re going to break this door down.”

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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