By Crystal Burns
“When you call 911 for help and you don’t get help, what do you do?”
Gibson County Fire Chief Bryan Cathey posed the question after learning that a Bells man called 911 around 10 p.m. Sunday, July 21 but didn’t get the assistance he needed.
Thomas Smith was on Hwy. 70/79 in Humboldt when his car caught on fire. Smith said he called 911, but the dispatcher at Gibson County E-911 Central Control put him on hold. When she came back on the line, Smith said she told him that all available deputies were responding to an emergency and he would need to call a wrecker or tow service.
After they ended the call, Smith looked up the number for the Humboldt Fire Department and called it. He said Humboldt firefighters responded quickly. He told them what happened with 911. Later, he would receive phone calls from Cathey and Sheriff Paul Thomas.
“I told [the dispatcher] I needed a fire department because my car was on fire,” Smith said. “I didn’t think there was no confusion.”
In a copy of the 911 call obtained by The Gazette, Smith tells the dispatcher that there are flames inside his car. His horn was constantly beeping, which Smith also reported to the dispatcher, saying it “scared the crap” out of him.
The dispatcher puts Smith on hold for more than 60 seconds. Although she asks him to stay on the line and he responds, it’s unclear if he knows he’s on hold because he continues talking to the dispatcher, trying to describe where he is.
Cathey said the incident shows a lack of training.
“It had to be not proper training,” he said. “The dispatcher didn’t ask the proper questions.”
E-911 Director Johanna Harrell, who provided a copy of the 911 call to the newspaper, said the dispatcher has been employed with Central Control since October 2018 but is new to dispatching. Harrell said she had spoken with the dispatcher and the senior dispatcher on shift after she received information about Smith’s 911 call.
“I stress everyday the importance of paying attention to detail with every call,” Harrell said. “The dispatcher needs to continually ask follow-up questions when in doubt to make sure appropriate resources are being dispatched.”
Cathey, a 40-year firefighting veteran and member of the Gibson County E-911 board, admitted that most automobile fires end in the vehicle being totaled, but the “what-ifs” bother him.
“What if it had been a house on fire?” he said. “What if it had been a murder in progress? It’s a bunch of what-ifs. You just can’t have a breakdown like that at your 911 communications.”
Harrell said Central Control uses calls like Smith’s as training tools to better prepare dispatchers. She added that another dispatcher provided a perfect example of how to help a caller last year when a woman with a brain injury who was lost in another county and unable to comprehend numbers or street names received the help she needed.
“The dispatcher remained diligent and did not give up on her and stayed with her on the phone until she was located by deputies in Madison County,” Harrell said. “The outcome could have been fatal had he just said, ‘I’m sorry, you aren’t in my county,’ and hung up the phone.”
Central Control has come under scrutiny from officials and first responders across the county contending that they’re receiving poor service from the dispatch agency. In a July 16 story that was published by all four newspapers in the county, E-911 officials, including Harrell and board chairman James Fountain, responded to the complaints and said hiring experienced dispatchers has been difficult. Fountain said other locations are paying as much as $4 more per hour.
Harrell said last week that prior experience is favorable but not required for 911 services.
“We are committed to training and providing the initial and on-going training dispatchers need to perform their roles effectively,” she said.