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Published: Saturday, 4/15/2006

When every second counts

MOST adults can only begin to imagine the terror felt by 5-year-old Robert Turner when he tried desperately to summon help for his stricken mother and was basically told by annoyed 911 operators in Detroit to stop messing with the phone.

The youngster s call was a legitimate emergency his mother had collapsed. He had the presence of mind to call for help, but the operator, believing a child was simply playing, brushed him off. He called again and spoke to a second operator. Finally, an emergency crew was dispatched to the home, but the boy s mother, Sherill, died before they got there.

Although an investigation is under way, the case should prompt emergency service operations and not just in Detroit to examine their procedures.

It isn t clear whether Ms. Turner, who was 46, could have been saved if emergency crews had been sent immediately when Robert first called. But we ll never know.

The behavior of the dispatchers was appalling. The first chastised the boy and asked to speak to an adult. Since Robert was alone with his unconscious mother, that was not possible. When Robert called again, the second operator tried to bully him, saying she would send police and that he was getting himself into trouble.

Both operators should be suspended and, if the facts are indeed as they seem, they deserve to be publicly humiliated and fired.

Many emergency services departments have a standard policy of responding even if they are convinced the call is a prank, and in Detroit, up to a fourth of all calls are.

If the system is abused, those responsible can be dealt with later. But when every second counts, 911 personnel do not have the luxury of assuming anything other than a legitimate need to dispatch at once.

Unfortunately, the Turner case is not the first time this has happened in Detroit. The city paid $3.6 million in 1989 to settle a lawsuit because the police never responded to calls from relatives to help a woman being threatened by a boyfriend. The woman was killed and two relatives were wounded.

Even if the boy, now 6, was tough to understand in his excited state, the 911 equipment identifies the calling location. It s hardly unusual for a person living alone, especially an elderly individual, to have difficulty articulating in such a situation.

The solution: roll the crew and ask questions later.

Every time.

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