One afternoon in January 2008, Nathan Lee returned home from work to find his two little boys crammed into the same crib, crying. Their mother had left behind her cell phone and purse and disappeared. Within a couple of hours, police in her southwest Florida town had a pretty good idea of what had happened to Denise Amber Lee. She’d been spotted tied up with rope—had even managed to briefly call 911—while in the backseat of a car owned by a 36-year-old unemployed plumber named Michael King.
Around 6:30 that evening, a woman placed an urgent call to 911 reporting the precise location of King’s Camaro. It had pulled up alongside her car at a traffic light, and she could see someone crying out for help and banging on the back window. (She thought it was a child.) Just a few miles away, police were desperately searching for Denise with dogs and a helicopter.
But tragically, the 911 center never passed along the motorist’s report. One officer later told Denise’s father he was “sure” the Camaro had driven right by him, but no one had told him to watch out for it. The next time anyone saw Denise Lee was a few days later. She was lying naked in a shallow grave; she’d been sexually assaulted and shot. “There is no doubt in my mind that if the 911 call had been handled properly, she would still be here,” Nathan Lee says. “It will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
If there’s one thing we think we can count on, it’s that a frantic call to 911 will bring a swift and effective response. Government’s first priority, after all, is protecting its citizens. But a spate of recent cases reveal shocking flaws in our national emergency response system—at a cost measured in lives. It’s a system overstressed by boneheaded calls about everything from hangnails to poor restaurant service, weakened by state governments raiding its funds, and hobbled by the incompetence of a few bad apples.
“You roll the dice” when making a call for emergency help, admits Ronald Bonneau, who runs a 911 center 30 miles south of Chicago. “Frankly, there are centers out there where the operators are not very well trained.”
One of those inadequately trained operators was the Pittsburgh-area 911 worker who took a call from a woman last April asking police to remove her 22-year-old son from her home. When the operator asked whether the man, Richard Poplawski, had any weapons, the mother responded, “Yes, but they’re all legal.”
“Okay, but he’s not threatening you with anything?” the operator asked.
“Look, I’m just waking up,” the woman said. “I want him gone.”
The operator reported the call to the police dispatcher with a note indicating that the son had “no weapons.” As a result, police walked into a death trap. Poplawski, a former Marine recruit who’d been tossed out of boot camp, had donned a bulletproof vest and set up an ambush. He opened fire with an AK-47 rifle and two other guns, killing three officers and wounding a fourth.
Then there’s the case of Brittany Zimmermann. In April 2008, the 21-year-old University of Wisconsin student dialed 911 without saying anything. Never mind the audible screams and sounds of struggle in the background— all caught on tape—the operator insists she heard no noise on the line. She neither informed police nor tried to call back. Later that day, Zimmermann’s fiancé found her stabbed and beaten to death in her apartment. The call, police later acknowledged, “should have resulted in a Madison police officer being dispatched”—an action that might have saved the young woman’s life.
Human error might also have cost the life of Darlene Dukes, an Atlanta woman who called 911 last August gasping for breath. Dukes, 39, reached a dispatcher who already had a string of mishandled calls on her record and who, according to her supervisor, had once fallen asleep so deeply at her desk that she tumbled from her chair. (She claims she fell as she leaned to pick up a paper.) That dispatcher sent paramedics to the wrong address, 28 miles from the caller’s home. By the time an ambulance reached Dukes, an hour later, she was nearly dead from a blood clot in her lungs. She died soon after reaching the hospital.
At least the operator in the Dukes fiasco was finally fired (she’s appealing her termination). Incredibly, most of the 911 personnel involved in the other tragedies are still on the job. One of the two operators found to have botched the Denise Lee case was suspended without pay for 60 hours; the other, for only 36. The woman who gave the “no weapons” message to Pittsburgh cops was given paid leave. The operator who failed to act on Brittany Zimmermann’s call was allowed to transfer to another county position.
This lack of accountability doesn’t just allow incompetent operators to remain on the job—it gives workers with bad attitudes license to abuse the people they are paid to protect. When a Nashville woman called 911 last spring because her boyfriend was threatening her with a knife, an operator was caught on tape muttering to himself after hanging up, “I don’t give a s— what happens to you.” The call center apparently took its time forwarding the information, and police arrived three hours later. But at least the victim in that case survived.
Last January, a 911 operator fielded a call reporting that an Orlando woman, Loyta Sloley, had been kidnapped. The operator was able to reach Sloley on her cell phone, but she wouldn’t—or couldn’t—tell him where she was. He then brusquely lectured her that she was “going to be in some serious trouble” and could be charged for the expense of a manhunt if she didn’t cooperate. It took nearly a half hour in all for the operator to dispatch police. By the time the cops arrived, Sloley’s ex-boyfriend had shot and killed her and turned the gun on himself.
Maybe the most heartbreaking case of all was the one involving five-year-old Robert Turner. He called 911 in Detroit twice when his mother collapsed. But the dispatchers thought the call was a prank.
Police arrived to find the boy’s mother, 46-year-old Sherrill Turner, dead on the floor. A jury convicted the first operator of willful neglect. But she appealed her firing, and it was overruled this past summer. She is already back on the job.
Bad operators are not the only issue. It’s amazing how many idiots burden the system with stupid calls, especially now that nearly everyone carries a cell phone. In February, a Boynton Beach, Florida, man called 911 because Burger King did not have lemonade. He didn’t get his drink, but he did get a court summons. In 2006, an Oregon woman called to ask the police, who had responded earlier to a noise complaint at her home, to return to the house. Eventually, she admitted why: One officer was “the cutest cop I’ve seen in a long time.” She saw him again soon enough—when he arrested her for the dumb call. A California study found that as many as 45 percent of the emergency calls placed from cell phones in the state were frivolous or prank calls.
You can imagine what that does to the 911 system. It creates delays and overworks operators. And this is happening at a time when states are cutting back in every category and, worse, have begun raiding funds intended to keep 911 centers fully staffed and well equipped. More than $200 million in fees collected from cell phone users and earmarked for upgrades to the 911 system around the country have been diverted by state governments to pay for needs outside emergency response, according to a recent Associated Press investigation. In Wisconsin, $100 million meant for 911 upgrades will be used to plug other holes in the budget. In New York, a new fee instituted to fund 911 services will pay for general budget items and new police uniforms. Emergency budgets are getting “hammered,” says Craig Whittington, president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). “It’s ridiculous.”
Fortunately, people determined to protect the quality of our 911 service are out there. California recently enacted legislation that will impose penalties running up to $250 per call for needless 911 calls. Groups like NENA have begun publicly rebuking politicians who attempt to divert 911 funding to other purposes.
And some of the victims of 911 failures are turning their tragedies into crusades. Among them is Michael Cantrell, whose toddler accidentally strangled in a soccer net. Cantrell’s wife called 911, but the operator could not, or simply would not, tell her how to perform CPR. Together with Nathan Lee, Cantrell has launched a campaign for a minimum training standard like the one required for paramedics nationwide. At the very least, our 911 operators should be willing and able to explain lifesaving procedures, warn police about weapons at a scene, and treat any child’s call seriously, unless there’s good reason to think it’s a prank.
Maybe it’s time we declared a 911 emergency. After all, what could be more urgent than making sure our national security safety net is up to the task of saving lives?
A Cry for Help
A tragic misunderstanding may have contributed to the 2006 death of Sherrill Turner, 46, who collapsed in her Detroit home. Her five-year-old son, Robert, called 911 twice. Help never came. Excerpts from the tape:
Robert: My mom has passed out.
Dispatcher: Where’s Mr. Turner at?
Robert: Right here.
Dispatcher: Let me speak to him.
Robert: She’s not gonna talk.
Dispatcher: Okay, well, I’m going to send the police to your house and find out what’s going on with you …
Three hours later, Robert tried again.
Robert: My mom has passed out in her room.
Dispatcher: Where’s the grown-up at?
Robert: In her room.
Dispatcher: Let me speak to her before I send the police over there.
Robert: She’s not gonna talk.
Dispatcher: Okay, well, you know what? Then she’s gonna talk to the police because I’m sending them over there.
Dispatcher: I don’t care. You shouldn’t be playing on the phone. Now put her on the phone before I send the police out there … and you’re going to be in trouble.
Robert’s mother, who suffered from an enlarged heart, was dead by the time police arrived. The first operator appealed her termination and is back on the job answering calls.
3 Things You Can Do
DON’T BE THE PROBLEM Call 911 only in true emergencies. Remind children that the punishment for a prank 911 call is serious.
SUPPORT THE CAUSE Find out how you can help Nathan Lee fight for change—and get involved in your own state—by visiting the foundation he started in his wife’s memory (deniseamberlee.org).
SPEAK UP Is your state diverting 911 funds for other purposes? Find the number for your state legislator (votesmart.org) and call to find out. Does your area have training standards for 911 operators? If it doesn’t, ask local officials why.