It’s common for us to assume that in the face of an emergency we’d know exactly what to do. Children are taught how to call 911 and give the dispatcher the pertinent information and we assume that calls will be handled like the dispatch scenes depicted on television and in movies. What happens is often not that simple and involves more than we may realize.
In late December 2014, just before 7 p.m., a couple headed out for their home after visiting family. The driver failed to negotiate a curve and crossed the center line. They hit a driveway, became airborne and landed in a ditch.
The initial 911 call for the accident was placed at 7:01 p.m. by an Iowa man who was traveling past the scene. The caller correctly indicated the road number, house number, description of vehicle and passengers, their condition and any responses, and gave his name, with spelling, and callback number.
A second 911 dispatch transcript shows Winona County emergency medical responders, who had searched for the scene for 15 minutes, seeking to clarify the accident address. Both indicate a location in Ridgeway, near the I-90 overpass, 32 miles away from the accident scene. Dispatch then redialed the original caller and learns the accident is Fillmore County, not Winona County.
Fillmore County dispatch records indicate the first call to dispatcher Gary Skaggs at 7:20 p.m. A second caller, also at the scene, made an additional call at the same time. Based on location, Chatfield Ambulance was dispatched at 7:21 and Fountain Fire Department was dispatched around the same time. Within two minutes, the Chatfield department was en route. Fountain Fire Department was on the scene by 7:30, as was Fillmore County Deputy Mike Hadland. The crews arrived, administered help to both victims, began CPR and transported to the hospital. However, one of the victims passed away before reaching the hospital.
“What’s so tragic in this case is that the initial information that was given, the road number and address, was correct. It was so specific,” says Fillmore County Sheriff Tom Kaase, who was serving with the Rochester Police Department in 2014 and also once worked as a Fillmore County dispatcher. “Winona County responded appropriately. The ambulance couldn’t find the accident and people on the scene, understandably, were wondering, ‘Where is the help?’ Unfortunately, Winona County had an exact valid address that matched up. There was also an exact address in the neighboring Fillmore County.”
A satellite map search shows several addresses matching the given accident address, including the one in neighboring Winona County. When the initial 911 call was placed, it’s likely that the call went to the closest, most direct cellular tower. Cell tower mapping shows towers northeast of Chatfield, north of Highway 30, and east of Fountain, off County Road 8. At the time of the accident, it’s possible the closest tower may have been in Winona County as the accident site is just three miles from the Fillmore County/Winona County line. Unfortunately, neither 911 dispatch or law enforcement have control over which towers the calls are connected to.
Previously, all emergency calls were routed to State Patrol. Counties fought to get it within their jurisdiction. “Within the county, it should come to us. Why it was picked up by Winona County, we’re not sure. It may have been the [cell phone] carrier or the topography of the area, but it was probably just closer in proximity to Winona County,” says Kaase.
“In looking at the transcript, the Winona County dispatcher had great information; the county road, the house number, a name, and a callback number. They collected the basic information to go through the steps and get emergency medical response rolling. Winona County knew they had an accident and that they needed to respond, but they couldn’t help. They didn’t know where it was. The tragic part is the initial information was correct. It was just the wrong county.”
In hindsight, both the deceased victim’s family and Sheriff Kaase wish things had been different. “Winona County called back to say they couldn’t find anything. About the same time, two people in the house called 911 at the same time. This flooded the 911 system in Preston,” notes the victim’s mother. “The Fillmore County Sheriff pointed out this problem. You can hear phones ringing the background as the calls came in.”
While we may envision a dispatch center with multiple phones and dispatchers working round the clock, in largely rural Fillmore County, there are 17 cities and 23 townships that are routed to one county dispatch center, with one dispatcher. “One thing people need to be cognizant of, there’s typically just one dispatcher at a time. They need to try to grasp they’re the one and only person taking the phone call. The dispatcher has to gather the pertinent information, as quickly as possible, before making the call to needed ambulance services (7), fire departments (11), and law enforcement (County, City, State Patrol, or DNR).” In addition to this, the dispatcher, at times, communicates with any of the six surrounding counties, two being in Iowa.
The victims’ family spoke with Sheriff Kaase about concerns with 911 issues. “It is not my purpose to criticize. My goal is to inform people how to better use 911,” stresses the victim’s mother. “My daughter’s car crash opened my eyes to things where we all could do better. Before the crash, I had never given 911 much thought. You just call and everything is supposed to be OK,” she admits.
Emergency 911 training is a constant in law enforcement, fire, and ambulance departments, but the public at large doesn’t always prepare adequately for those times of emergency. It’s critical for everyone involved to be as prepared as possible and communicate as efficiently as possible.
“All calls are different,” emphasizes Kaase. “There are times people are calm, cool, and collected. Other times, we have to calm them down before we can get what we need. Try to remain calm.”
It’s also a challenge for dispatchers to get the information. “It’s tough for dispatchers to keep people on the line long enough. Sometimes that’s a big chore,” says Kaase. “Sometimes we get to the point of needing a name and callback number and they refuse to give it. But, we need it in the event the other information is wrong or we need to clarify something or get an update. The dispatchers are trained to know the questions to ask and how to draw out information; how to be cooperative. If they’re asking you a question, there’s a reason for it.”
Calls are also not as detailed as in this particular case. They’re usually quite vague. “Sometimes they’re directional; sometimes they just tell us they’re on a blacktop road,” adds Kaase. It is critical to get responders to the right location as quickly as possible. “How do we get people more cognizant about their location?” asks Kaase.
Today, more than 95% of Americans own a cell phone, with 77% of those being smartphone. In emergency calls, more than 70% come from cellular devices. Cell phone advancements are being made rapidly. Applications for emergencies are being developed and marketed and smartphones now have the ability to draw information from calls, depending on the phone and carrier. As the technology advances, more options are available that can pinpoint locations.
Additionally, services such as OnStar are now available within vehicles themselves to assist us in getting help. Unfortunately, it isn’t available in all vehicles, must be opted-in in some cases, and typically sends calls to a larger call center before being directed to emergency responders. So, what about the instances when technology fails us? A time when there is no reception or your phone is dead; you don’t or can’t opt-in for OnStar, and when even the GPS address isn’t enough.
“You have to be prepared,” urges Kaase. “People get in the car and they zone out; tune out. Pay attention. Know where you are.”
“People with kids, talk to your kids about emergencies. Ask them questions and talk about scenarios. ‘How would you get help? What if we had an accident and I was knocked out? What information do you need to give to get help?’” he adds.
“The bottom line is, we all need better training for what to do in an emergency situation,” says the victim’s mother. “A successful 911 call depends on both the operator and the caller communicating effectively. A 15-minute delay in response is huge. It could be the difference between life and death for someone.”