By Scott Kraus | Of The Morning Call
March 5, 2008
The director of Bucks County’s emergency communications center has stepped down in the wake of the mishandling of a 911 distress call from a disabled Doylestown woman who died in a Jan. 29 house fire.
Brent Wiggins, who directed the 911 dispatch operation since 1991, has tendered his retirement, County Commissioner Chairman James Cawley said Tuesday.
In addition, Cawley said, six dispatchers and three supervisors have been briefly suspended without pay.
Cawley would not say whether the commissioners asked for Wiggins’ retirement, but noted the 35-year county employee had been talking about retiring in 2009.
“It’s safe to say the circumstances surrounding this incident may have played a factor in his decision,” Cawley said. “I would submit this incident did.”
Wiggins declined to comment through county spokeswoman Stacey Hadjak.
Cawley gave new details of the incident, uncovered after the commissioners directed Emergency Management Director John Dougherty and Human Resources Director Carmen Thome to take over the internal probe from Wiggins.
He said that decision was made after getting “some anonymous comments in the form of letters and phone calls that the investigation needed to be taken out of the hands of the department itself.”
The county reported at a Feb. 13 news conference that 10 dispatchers were unoccupied and failed to answer the phone when 53-year-old Brenda Orr called, saying her bed was on fire.
But Dougherty said further examination revealed four of the 10 were busy on work-related tasks and will not be disciplined.
One was coming off a police call and tried to pick up Orr’s 911 call a split second after it was picked up by another dispatcher who was in the middle of dispatching an ambulance and put it on hold, the probe found.
Another dispatcher was in the middle of forwarding information about an assault suspect to a responding police officer, and two others were dispatching Bucks County agencies to emergencies in Montgomery County.
All six of the dispatchers who were unoccupied have been given unpaid one-day suspensions, Cawley said, a harsher punishment than the letters of reprimand initially placed in their personnel files. Three supervisors have been given unpaid suspensions of two to five days, he said.
Wiggins will retire effective May 2, and his last day in the office will be March 28. The county will launch a national search for his replacement.
Cawley said the county made the unusual decision to discuss details of employee discipline because of the seriousness of the incident.
“We felt that in the interest of trying to be as candid as possible in this situation. … We thought it was important to provide as much detail as was allowed under law,” Cawley said.
Orr, who had multiple sclerosis, died when her bed caught fire. The fire spread and gutted her house. Fire officials suspect it was caused by a cigarette.
Orr called 911 at 10:31 a.m., but her call was allowed to ring six times before it was picked up. Then she was put on hold for 26 seconds before a second dispatcher took over the call.
That dispatcher asked Orr for her address, told her to leave the house and then, after two minutes and nine seconds had elapsed, dispatched fire and rescue services.
County fire officials have said the delay probably did not contribute to Orr’s death.
The county completed a preliminary report on the call in February. It said the call was eventually answered “out of frustration” by a dispatcher who was on an ambulance call.
The report faulted dispatchers and their supervisors for letting Orr’s call ring six times, and said she should not have been put on hold.
The county initially disciplined 11 dispatchers and four supervisors, primarily by placing letters of reprimand in their personnel files. Officials also promised to implement policies and procedures to prevent similar problems.
County officials announced no change in the discipline handed down to the dispatcher who first answered Orr’s call and placed it on hold.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union filed a grievance several days later on behalf of the disciplined dispatchers.
Cawley said the county continues to examine its response to Orr’s call.