A four-minute 911 call for an elderly deaf woman using pandemic-popular videoconferencing has sparked some anxiety for South Lyon Fire Chief Robert Vogel.
“It went really painfully long,” he said. “It just seemed like there was a lot of quiet air.”
According to his research, most 911 calls typically are processed in less than 90 seconds.
Vogel’s fire department works with Novi’s dispatch center, which has a goal of processing fire and medical calls in 45 seconds. In 2019, those calls took an average of 37 seconds to process.
JoAnn Lambert’s living conditions are not average.
On May 28, the 81-year-old woman realized a food container was burning in her microwave and was creating hazardous smoke.
She picked up the remote controls that connect her to a sign language interpreter associated with Sorenson Video Relay Service in Salt Lake City.
That interpreter then called 911.
Hometown Life filed a Freedom of Information request to get a recording.
“911. What is the location of your emergency?” the Novi dispatcher said.
“This is an interpretive phone call for sign language. I’m interpreter 3187. I’m currently looking at a blank screen. It looks like somebody’s coming into the screen now. They’re saying, ‘I’m coming. I need somebody to come.’ ”
The two worked out the details of the fire. Lambert, at one point, steps away from the videoconferencing equipment working with her television screen. The dispatcher tells the interpreter to tell Lambert to evacuate.
Lambert returned to a place where the interpreter could see her.
“The smoke is bad. I can hardly breathe,” the interpreter told the dispatcher.
The dispatcher told the interpreter firefighters were on their way.
Vogel said Lambert was not doing well and was not breathing normally when firefighters arrived to rescue her from inside her Washington Street apartment.
The fire from a burning container inside her microwave was extinguished. Damage was minor.
“It just seemed like this was a close call,” Vogel said. “She got lucky.”
The chief’s now planning to meet with Lambert so they can discuss better options than videoconferencing, and Lambert said she’s willing to hear what he has to say.
Vogel said it would be best if she could text 911. Other options Vogel has tossed around include a communications board similar to those used by the autistic community and more awareness of Novi dispatch center’s TTY – or text telephone – services.
Lambert lost her hearing while young because of meningitis and learned sign language and how to talk with hearing people by reading lips.
She didn’t give up. She sought more schooling as an adult, married, raised children and now has a great grandson.
“This is the remote for my phone,” she said this week. “If I want to call out, I have a call history.”
She scrolled through a series of numbers, including 911, on her TV screen and called the video relay service that she uses. An interpreter quickly popped on the TV screen. Lambert said goodbye with some waves.
Alan Patterson has managed Novi’s dispatch center for at least three years and Lambert’s recent emergency was the first time he’s ever worked with a third-party service. He recommended that she consider texting 911 or using the center’s TTY services if another emergency arises.
“Both of those are just a little bit more direct route for communication,” Patterson said.
He said dispatchers are trained to ask questions determining the level and priority of calls. Often, they remain on the line after first responders are dispatched to keep gathering information.
“That information can take some time to get, depending on the caller,” he said. “For example, a call from a child, a confused elderly person, a hearing-impaired person, or a third party can take longer to process due to the difficulty in obtaining information.”
Linda Benson is just glad her neighbor is safe.
Benson was outdoors with grandchildren when Lambert experienced her emergency and the fire chief arrived.
Benson offered Lambert her fan to get the smoke smell out of the apartment.
“It could have been worse,” Benson said.