CHATTANOOGA; Tenn. – Thousands of calls to Chattanooga's 911 call center have been going unanswered, according to records examined after a caller was unable to report a kitchen fire because three of four dispatchers were taking breaks at the same time.
Stacey Hunter and her family members called 911 from her home phone and cellular phones Monday afternoon when the fire broke out, but the calls went unanswered. Finally, Artterius Bonds, and 14-year-old nephew, Quayshaune Fountain, ended up running a half mile to get help from the fire station. No one was hurt.
"If they hadn't gone running, my house would have completely burned up," Hunter, 34, said as she stood in her scorched kitchen.
Chattanooga Police Chief Steve Parks, who oversees employees of the Hamilton County Emergency Communications District, said the department was responsible for the unanswered calls.
One dispatcher was taking calls and three others working the shift were taking a break, the chief said. He described the situation as an unacceptable failure of the 911 system.
But records indicate the problem is more widespread.
During one 10-month period, from January to October 2005, about 27,000 calls to city dispatchers at the 911 center went unanswered, police spokesman Tetzell Tillery said. Last month 20 percent — about 2,000 — of more than 10,650 calls placed were not answered, he said.
Officials said the count includes numerous caller hang-ups and repeated calls.
On Monday, records show there were 22 unanswered calls to the 911 service in the 27-minute period when the fire was burning. Six came from Hunter's residence.
"You've got four people supposed to be dispatching and three people on break. I can't still digest that," Hunter said.
Police said there are 68 communications positions, with two added in the last fiscal year, and the center needs 78 people to be fully staffed.
The call center's oversight board said they would commission a study aimed at possibly reorganizing and consolidating call taking. The board chairman, Hamilton County Sheriff John Cupp, said "there is a shortage of personnel and a lot of times when there is a shortage of personnel you have problems organizing things."
County commissioners and City Council members said unanswered calls were unacceptable and would be corrected. Sally Robinson, chairman of the Chattanooga City Council, said she did not realize so many calls were being missed.
"We have a responsibility to staff it to a level that makes it work, 24-7," Robinson said.
Not everyone agrees there is a staffing problem, however.
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said the 911 call center has the "resources they need" and should have had more people on when Hunter's call was not answered.
The Tennessee Emergency Communications Board may ask to hear from representatives of the Hamilton County district if there is a problem with service, said Lynn Quistel, the board's executive director.
But staffing issues are a local matter, she said. Local oversight boards determine staffing levels and are not required to provide backup rollover numbers.
Patrick Halley, a spokesman for Washington, D.C.-based National Emergency Numbers Association, said there are more than 6,100 911 call centers across the country and there is "no national standard as far as how long it should take" to answer a call.
The Chattanooga call center has had other problems.
Hoyt Branham, who lives in northern Hamilton County, said that in October 2004 he severed an artery in his arm while working in his shop. He called 911 in Chattanooga, told them he was bleeding profusely and provided his location. But no one showed up.
Branham, 70, said he was alone and getting weak, so he called neighbors and his daughter ended up taking him to the hospital. He said 911 operators later denied that he called, but a review of their recording equipment showed he did.
"I just don't trust them," Branham said.