9OYS Investigates: Glitches with city’s 911 system sounds off alarms
Critics say it may have contributed death of a10-year-old
Reporter: Claire Doan
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) – Tucson’s upgrade from an analog to a digital 911 system in late May has caused a number of problems for the city’s emergency responders, and some claim it may have even contributed to the death of a 10-year-old girl.
Dispatchers for the Tucson area respond to roughly 700,000 phone calls a year, and many of them are a matter of life and death – as in the case that came a mere six days after the switch.
A nurse at Continental Reserve Urgent Care trying to help gave the wrong address to the dispatcher – one number off – in trying to help the girl who was unable to breathe. That dispatcher never questioned or corrected her, and sent emergency crews to the wrong address miles away and even repeated the wrong address moments later. When help finally came -- eleven minutes after the first call -- it was too late: the 10-year-old girl died.
“I understand that people want to mitigate the city’s legal liability, but there’s a greater purpose in mind and that is the safety of the public,” Councilmember Steve Kozachik told KGUN9 News. “The problem is that when we went live, we pulled out the old system. There’s no turning back.”
The city fired the dispatcher, but Kozachik believes that incident wasn’t just operator error. He says the upgrade added to the mix-up, including problems such the lack of a locator screen during particular calls or the system not allowing for other dispatchers or supervisors to also be on the line and possibly cross-check the information coming through. Kozachik said other problems include dropped calls, inaudible sounds and transfer failures.
Kozachik also cites emails from a dispatcher who listed a number of problems with the upgrade and was eventually fired.
"I was horrified but not surprised to learn that our Emergency Communications Center probably contributed to the death of a 10-year-old girl on June 1st. Our performance as an organization was not acceptable," the dispatcher wrote in a memo to the city.
City Manager Mike Letcher maintains that the firing had nothing to do with the complaints about the system.
“This was not a whistleblowing incident. This individual did something that was inappropriate and would’ve been fired under any circumstances,” Letcher said. He added that Tucson Fire is able to respond to emergencies within six minutes on average, well under the national average of nine minutes.
Still, the city remains under scrutiny, with the problems of the new system documented by stacks of discrepancy reports by dispatchers.
Ron Lewis, the city’s general services director, admits they anticipated some of the glitches, but experienced many more, especially in the days following the switchover. But he said the majority of the problems, including the more serious ones, were immediately resolved. He also added that during the 60-day transition, the city is getting on-site help from Qwest, the company that installed the new system.
“What we did – the wise thing to do – is actually to have technicians on site to be able to correct the issues immediately. That’s the bottom line,” Letcher said.
9 On Your Side asked Lewis whether he can assure Tucsonans that the new system will not delay emergency response or jeopardize lives. “At this point, all those types of concerns are already taken care of. They were taken care of weeks ago. They were corrected as soon as we saw the root of the problem,” Lewis responded.
But what wasn’t taken care of weeks ago: the contract between the city and Qwest. The city attorney is only now looking closely at it to determine what will happen if the city does not want the new system, rather than before the system went online.
“The city did not look at it as deeply into the basic standard clauses and conditions that relate to potential remedies in the case that we were not satisfied with the system and just felt we couldn’t accept it,” Lewis said.
It would be nearly impossible for the city to revert back to its old system, as the hardwiring has been removed and its software is no longer supported by the company.
“What really ticked me off about this is when I said ‘let’s pull the plug,’ and fix is, the answer is that we can’t,” Kozachik said.