9-1-1 lapse a real emergency

  • Posted: Thursday, September 5, 2013 1:48 p.m.

Charleston County’s reason for establishing a consolidated 9-1-1 center made good sense: to get emergency services to people more quickly and more efficiently.

So it was a blow to its credibility when Glenn Smith reported in Wednesday’s Post and Courier a significant lapse in the system.

A problem with the 9-1-1 system is more than a headache: It could mean the difference between life and death.

The incident that brought the system’s functionality to the fore wasn’t quite so dramatic, but it was still serious.

Ira Lewis of Mount Pleasant called 9-1-1 on Aug. 25 to report that burglars were trying to break into a neighbor’s home.

Police didn’t come.

So he called again, and was told that help was on the way. It didn’t come.

Ira Lewis deserves thanks from his next-door neighbor for looking out for him, but even more, he deserves credit for uncovering a problem with the Charleston County Consolidated 9-1-1 Center.

Charleston County authorities said Wednesday that a single employee appears to have caused the problem. In the period examined, between July 1 and Aug. 27, the center received more than one complaint involving the same employee. The calls were for police assistance and were not passed on.

Officials said the employee is no longer taking calls at the center. They did not say whether the employee quit, was fired or is on leave.

Officials also released the 911 calls from Mr. Lewis. Each provided a clear description of what was happening and a description of the would-be burglars’ getaway car.

But it was only when he called the Mount Pleasant Police Department later that he learned the police hadn’t received the report from the 9-1-1 center.

Authorities need to look hard at the employee’s history and how complaints were, or weren’t, handled.

Oversight of employees in the high-stress, high-stakes job must be thorough. Problems — intentional or accidental — must be handled immediately.

The public needs assurance that the system is working as it should. And people should be given a full explanation of what went wrong with Ira Lewis’ calls, how often such things occur, and what the county is going to do about it.

Almost all municipalities in the county depend on the center to handle calls and coordinate response to law enforcement, EMS and fire emergencies. Folly Beach opted out of the program in 2011. Council said that dispatchers were not familiar enough with landmarks and directions in Folly Beach to be effective.

The $26.7 million 9-1-1 center building, which also houses the county’s Emergency Management Department, was opened in January with promises of “protecting citizens’ livelihoods” and “saving lives.”

Consolidating emergency 9-1-1 dispatching was a large and worthy undertaking.

Getting to the bottom of dispatcher failures can’t wait.

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