Hang-ups, short staff delayed 911 response in officer's death - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Hang-ups, short staff delayed 911 response in officer's death

Hang-ups, short staff delayed 911 response in officer's death

(Source: WMC Action News 5) (Source: WMC Action News 5)

More than three dozen hang-ups within 15 minutes kept a citizen from getting through to Memphis 911 to report a Memphis police officer had been shot, according to emergency records.

The records revealed 48 people called Memphis 911 between 9 p.m. and 9:15 p.m Saturday, Aug. 1 -- the quarter-hour in which police said Tremaine Wilbourn of Memphis shot Memphis Police Officer Sean Bolton during a traffic stop. Of those 48, 38 hung up before connecting with Memphis 911, delaying responses so significantly, the citizen had to use Bolton's own patrol car radio to report the shooting. Bolton later died from his injuries.

"We find when that happens, we start receiving repetitive calls from the same location and person because the caller will not hold, but instead, they will hang up and call again, slowing the process down," said Memphis Police spokesperson Sgt. Karen Rudolph. "Each hang up call must be returned and confirmed if the caller needs or does not need assistance."

Memphis police and emergency response sources said those callers bailed out because they received the automated attendant, thinking they were receiving some sort of busy signal.

"It is not a busy signal," said Raymond Chiozza, director of Shelby County 911, the umbrella agency for all of the county's emergency dispatch centers. "It is an automatic attendant. Callers must stay on the line."

The automatic attendant starts with: "You have reached Memphis 911 emergency. All operators are busy, so please remain on the line."

"We have that so the person won't just hear a ring and think they've dialed wrong and hang up and call again because that creates even a worse scenario," Chiozza said.

In fact, the recording warns callers of the risk of hanging up as it continues:  "...If you hang up and call back, it will cause additional delay in answering your call."

"They should stay on the line," advised Chiozza.

But Ken Daniels of Midtown Memphis said he was stuck on the line for more than 10 minutes when he called Memphis 911. He was trying to report he had just found his stolen horse trailer on someone's property in Berclair/East Memphis. "They did send someone out, but it did seem like it took a long time," Daniels said. "I could imagine someone, if they had a real emergency going on, what kind of frustration they would be going through."

"A lot of that (delay) has to do with the number of staff Memphis 911 has on duty," Chiozza said. When we asked him if Memphis 911 is understaffed, Chiozza answered, "You'd have to ask them that."

We did -- and we discovered Memphis 911 is overwhelmed.

It is the busiest 911 dispatch center in Tennessee. Chiozza said about 20 percent of all 911 calls in the state are processed at Memphis 911. 124 dispatchers and 14 supervisors process between 2,100 and 3,000 911 calls and between 5,000 and 5,500 non-emergency calls every day.

"All 911 calls are answered before non-emergency calls," Rudolph said. "When a 911 call comes in, it is answered in the order that it is received."

Rudolph said Memphis 911 is in the process of hiring 30 additional dispatchers. She said it has received enough applicants and is no longer accepting applications.

Chiozza said if you call 911 from a land-line phone, it will automatically route to the dispatch center within that jurisdiction. When you call from a cell phone, it routes based on the closest antenna tower. That often results in what he called "mis-routes" when someone calls from an area that borders two emergency jurisdictions.

Chiozza said as long as the caller knows where he or she is and can give at least a specific address, location or cross streets, a dispatcher can correct a mis-route with a single button transfer to the appropriate 911 center.

We requested the nature of the calls that got through during the period of Officer Bolton's shooting. Rudolph said that information is not available.

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