Special Report: Life on the Line - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Special Report: Life on the Line

By Andrew Douglas - bio | email

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - When you dial 911, you expect a well-trained operator to help you get through an emergency.  But where you live could mean the difference between immediate help, and help on the way.

911 operators have one of the most important jobs during emergencies, serving as a link to life when an injured person is waiting for help to arrive.

C. J. Walker is manager of communications for the Memphis Fire Department's 911 service. Her department is certified and accredited to give anyone on the other end of the line life-saving instructions immediately in any emergency situation.

"They do have a script that they have to go by with CPR to make sure those instructions are given properly," she said.  "A drowning, cuts, people who are wounded, people who are shot - they can tell people how to stop the bleeding."

In fact, all 911 operators in Shelby County are certified to give this information.  The same goes for 911 operators in DeSoto County, and the entire state of Mississippi.

"To me it's essential," said DeeAnna Davis, who works in communications for DeSoto County. "We're their lifeline...their link. Without it, I've seen many that wouldn't make it."

But the Action News 5 Investigators uncovered many Mid-South cities, as well as smaller communities, that do not train their operators to give out medical information.

Zane Boyd, the supervisor of Crittenden County, Arkansas' 911 service, said his operators are not trained to offer medical instruction immediately.

"We get their information regarding medical, get their information of where they live, their phone number and what kind of problem they have, and then we connect them to the appropriate ambulance service," Boyd said.

Crittenden County medics are then dispatched, but the person on the phone must wait for medical help until those medics arrive.

We asked Boyd how fast their average response time is.

"Average?  It's probably eight to ten minutes," he said.

To some, that is too much time.

"Someone choking only has so long with air, and if your ambulance response time is eight minutes, it's too long," Davis said.

Boyd agreed that if a dispatcher is not able to give instructions over the phone, that could lead to death, whereas if there was some instruction in place, they could be save.

"Possibly," he said. "Yes sir, that is possible."

911 operators in Crittenden County are not the only ones who do not give out medical instruction over the phone.  Action News 5 contacted 18 emergency 911 services in West Tennessee, and we found more agencies that do not train their operators to offer medical instruction than those that do.

Instead, many agencies pass on the call to another emergency service. And like in Crittenden County, Arkansas, they do it because there is not enough money to do things differently."

"At this point it's kind of unreasonable because of the personnel that we have," Boyd said. "We don't have enough personnel to focus on that type of deal."

Pay is a major issue.

"It's not very practical because the salaries are not enough to be competitive," Boyd said. "It's kind of like you get what you pay for."

The starting pay for a 911 operator in Crittenden County is $9.50 an hour.  Across the state line in Memphis, it's almost $16.00 per hour, and in DeSoto County, operators are paid nearly $18.00 per hour.

"There is a wide gap between some," Walker said. "It just depends on the agency and municipality."

Emergency personnel say until that gap is closed, and more states start requiring 911 operators to offer medical instruction, you may find help is on the way, instead of on the line.


The Action News 5 Investigators contacted eighteen 911 agencies in West Tennessee to find out how medical information is relayed to callers.  We found more agencies than not do not train their operators to offer medical instruction.

  • Carroll County—Operators are not trained to offer medical instruction.
  • Chester County— Operators are not trained to offer medical instruction. Emergency calls are transferred to Medlinks.
  • Crockett County— Operators are not trained to offer medical instruction. Emergency calls are transferred to ambulance service.
  • Dyer County— Operators are trained to offer medical instruction.
  • Fayette County— Currently operators are not trained to offer medical instruction, but county officials are researching this and plan to implement training soon.  County leaders say staff would have to be increased to offer additional services effectively.
  • Gibson County— Operators are trained to offer medical instruction.
  • Hardeman County— Operators are trained to offer medical instruction.
  • Hardin County— Operators are not trained to offer medical instruction. Emergency calls are transferred to EMS immediately.
  • Haywood County— Operators are not trained to offer medical instruction.
  • Henderson County— Operators are not trained to offer medical instruction.
  • Lauderdale County— NO INFORMATION AVAILABLE
  • Madison County— Calls are sent to a Central Dispatch and the Sheriff's Department.  Central Dispatch sends callers who need emergency assistance to an ambulance service.  Sheriff's Department employees are trained to a degree - for example, they could help someone choking, but for CPR they refer callers to an EMT.
  • McNairy County— Operators are not trained to offer medical instruction. Emergency calls are transferred to appropriate service provider.
  • Obion County— Operators are not trained to offer medical instruction. Emergency calls are transferred to emergency medical dispatch.
  • Shelby County— Operators are trained to offer medical instruction.
  • Tipton County— Operators are not trained to offer medical instruction.  County leaders say they have looked into the course for their dispatch center, but have not made a decision at this time.
  • Weakley County—NO INFORMATION AVAILABLE
  • Lake County— Operators are not trained to offer medical instruction. Emergency calls are transferred to appropriate service provider.

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