Bad Calls: How Do Error-Prone 911 Operators Keep Their Jobs?

Critics say training for 911 operators is inadequate, with fatal consequences.

ByMARCUS BARAM

Aug. 18, 2008— -- One 911 operator reportedly fell asleep so soundly at her desk in Atlanta that she fell off her chair and scraped her ear, later filing a worker's compensation claim, which was rejected.

Another allegedly told a caller in Watauga, Texas, who was worried about an out-of-control child, "OK, do you want us to come over and shoot her?"

A third operator allegedly hung up on a 19-year-old college student in Madison, Wis., who was desperately calling for police to come to her home, where an attacker eventually stabbed and bludgeoned her to death.

Those are just some of the alleged mishaps and often deadly mistakes made by 911 operators in recent years, raising questions about the training, supervision and workload of these crucial workers who operate on the frontlines in emergency situations and are expected to exercise the best judgment in split-second decisions.

The latest such mistake to make headlines involved Gina Conteh, a 12-year veteran 911 operator in Atlanta, who according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, had amassed a 2,100-page personnel file documenting such problems as falling asleep at her desk, getting into heated screaming matches with co-workers that earned her a trip to anger-management classes, and scores of reports of mishandled calls.

But none of those mishaps or the other problems reportedly documented in her file caused Conteh to lose her job, that is, until Aug. 2, 2008.

On that afternoon, authorities said Conteh gave the wrong address to ambulance drivers responding to a distress call from a woman, Darlene Dukes, who was feeling sick. While police and paramedics worked for more than half an hour on Dukes, desperately waiting for the ambulance to arrive, she eventually died of a blood clot in her lung and Conteh was fired.

Conteh did not return calls for comment, but she is reportedly appealing her firing , according to her lawyer, Rory Starkey.

Local officials were outraged that Conteh could keep her job for so long, blaming the city's civil service protections that require documentation of discipline problems and allow for numerous appeals.

"Essentially you can't be fired," Rob Simms, chief of staff to the former Fulton County commissioner, told the paper."There's no accountability. How do you manage or supervise in an environment where there's no accountability."

In the Madison, Wis., case in which an unnamed operator was accused of hanging up on soon-to-be-slain University of Wisconsin-Madison student Brittany Zimmermann, civil service rules protected the dispatcher, whose union insisted that the dispatcher made the right decision and followed 911 protocols in handling the call. Calls to Laurie Lane, the dispatcher's union chief steward, were not returned.

Though this dispatcher kept her job, county officials changed their policy so that all 911 calls made from cell phones will now be automatically forwarded directly to the police.

Public safety experts also cite training as a crucial factor, which is often underfunded and varies in quality from agency to agency.

Faced with budget deficits, states and municipalities from Florida to California have cut funding for 911 centers -- recently a state court in California rejected one city's efforts to impose a special 911 tax to help fund such operations.

"Unfortunately, in the whole public safety spectrum, training is usually the first thing cut from the budget when dollars need to be crunched," Robert Smith, director of 911 Services for the Association of Public Safety Communications Officers, told ABCNews.com.

"We're seeing lots of cutbacks in most states, and that has impacted public safety. Some of these recent mistakes could be attributable to lack of training, high turnover and the inability to retain workers getting low wages and operators who are overworked and exhausted."

Smith's APCO developed a standard for training of frontline telecommunications workers, which is used throughout the country, including 40 hours of training in interpersonal communications, technologies and stress management.

But it is a voluntary standard and compliance is not subject to federal or state oversight.

"911 operators are governed at the lowest levels of government, not even at the municipality level but on the agency level, whether it's local police or fire departments," said Smith, pointing out that not all states license 911 operators and not all agencies run criminal background checks.

For example, about two dozen police, fire and sheriff departments across Texas may employ 911 operators accused of Class B misdemeanors, which includes theft and driving while intoxicated, according to a recent survey by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education.

One retired 911 dispatcher, Rick O'Neill in Chicago, said that there was a lot of turnover in the low-paying job.

"Of course, people were making mistakes and falling asleep on the job -- some of us were working around the clock, working on the holidays, working overtime to make extra money. It's a high-stress job and we're only human."

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