911 in a Crisis

I'll never forget the first time I felt overwhelmingly helpless. I was 11 years old, asleep peacefully in my bed when a sickening thud shook the house and startled me awake. My father, who had been complaining of increased pain in his back, had lost consciousness and tumbled to the floor. We found him lying motionless on the cold bathroom tile. I was trembling, confused, and with my mom yelling for help, I did what had been recited to me and millions of other children during a time like this: I dialed 911. An operator quickly answered, calmed our nerves, and let us know that help was on the way. My father would be fine, but those pulse-pounding moments were, simply put, scary as hell.

Recently, in Detroit, a skeptical 911 operator scolded a 5-year-old boy during a similar situation for "playing on the phone" as he attempted to save his mother's life. His mom died when help arrived more than six hours after the initial call. And, one month earlier, also in Detroit, a woman called for help after her husband shot her in the head. The 911 operator's infamous and insensitive quote, "If you got shot in the temple, you probably wouldn't be able to make this call," made headlines and confirmed the tragic state of Detroit's emergency services.

What is the current status of 911 here in Memphis? In the past, frantic and frustrated 911 callers have complained of long hold times, recorded messages, and a convoluted, inefficient system. In 2004, former Memphis mayor Wyeth Chandler had to wait 14 minutes for a Shelby County ambulance after suffering a massive heart attack at his home. A Bartlett ambulance was parked and ready for dispatch less than two miles away, but was never called. And in 2003, Jim Wagner died after waiting an excruciating 23 minutes for a Memphis ambulance, although he was only blocks away from the Bartlett city limit.

These problems aren't personnel; they're political. Municipalities such as Millington, Germantown, Collierville, and Bartlett operate emergency response units separate from the city of Memphis and unincorporated Shelby County. City borders determine who responds first to the emergency, regardless of its proximity to the nearest emergency vehicle. For example, if a call is made in an unincorporated area a half-mile from Millington, it falls under the jurisdiction of Shelby County, even if a Millington city ambulance is closer and available.

To better serve us, all of us, emergency services need to be consolidated countywide. Until then, a state-of-the-art 911 call center initially proposed by Mayor A C Wharton would centralize many of these emergency units, providing better coordination and decreasing the chance of logistical mistakes. But funding constraints have put the call center on hold, and cities such as Collierville have declined to participate because of heavy investment in their own emergency services.

A more immediate solution would be for all cities to sign automated response agreements, or contracts that let adjoining jurisdictions help with emergencies along mutual borders. But these agreements are few and far between. Why? They pull emergency resources from citizens who pay taxes for these services. And when Memphis city services are underfunded and overstretched, it puts a burden on the surrounding communities that provide ample emergency support for their citizens.

A marketing campaign is soon on the way to educate the public on the proper reasons to use 911 services. It's a great start, but let's take it a step further. For repeat abusers who feel that the emergency operator is their own personal concierge, heavy fines should be implemented. Too many people call 911 during non-emergencies because it's easy to remember, unlike the 15 various non-emergency numbers listed across the county. Can't we create one simple countywide non-emergency number? Unnecessary 911 calls might decrease, freeing up important resources for real emergencies.

Ultimately, more can be done to make our system more efficient, giving emergency personnel a better chance to save more lives. We can't afford to let the seconds of helplessness felt in an emergency turn to minutes of hopelessness.

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