Producer Scott Zamost, Reporter Patricia Andreu, Photographer Pedro Cancio and Editor Ed Garcia
In an emergency, when seconds count, the first thing you do is dial 911. But an NBC 6 investigation exposes alarming delays in picking up calls to South Florida’s 911 centers.
NBC 6 did something the head of a 911 call center says he hasn’t done — check how quickly emergency calls are answered. What the investigation found was a 911 disconnect with delays that could be putting lives at risk.
"I had the baby right here. I was trying to do CPR," Gladys Sanchez told NBC 6. Gladys Sanchez was panicked. She had just pulled 18-month-old Sage Hernandez out of the family pool. The nanny started performing C-P-R and dialed 911.
"I was dialing. I was "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. Please answer, please answer, please answer. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand. No answer," Sanchez said.
Sanchez hung up after 23 seconds then called 9-1-1 two more times. But no one picked up. NBC found that this is not an isolated incident. In a four-month investigation, NBC 6 obtained computer records of emergency call times to Broward’s main 911 center, and found case after case of delays in answering emergency lines.
"There’s a huge fight going on…I can’t believe it took so long for you guys to answer the telephone," according to the tape of a 911 caller obtained by NBC 6.
Like on April 1, when a frustrated woman complained to the 911 operator after it took a minute and eight seconds to answer her call about a fight a Pembroke Pines hockey rink.
"The phone just kept ringing and ringing and ringing and no one answered at 911," the caller says on the tape. "Is that an acceptable way to be running a communications center?" reporter Patricia Andreu asked. "I can tell you that’s the best we can do on the days those calls came in," said Broward Sheriff’s Office Major Paul Lauria.
NBC 6 shared the results of our investigation with Lauria, who oversees BSO’s 911 system. The station examined nearly 29,000 emergency calls over randomly selected weeks in April and July.
NBC 6 found that BSO failed to meet the state standard of answering 90 percent of 911 calls within 10 seconds. In fact, NBC 6 discovered an average of only 65 percent of answered calls was picked up in 10 seconds or less. Hundreds of other calls took more than 30, 40 even 60 seconds to answer.
"There wasn’t one day, randomly selected, that reached 90% or even 80% answered within 10 seconds. Not one day," Andreu asked Lauria.
"Right," Lauria said. "Doesn’t that concern you?" Andreu asked. "If you look at the number of complaints we actually get for the service we provide, if it were any other business in the united states, we’d be running on a great record. Unfortunately, one oh shucks wipes away 1,000 atta boys," Lauria said.
BSO records show when Sage drowned on April 28, the nanny’s three 911 calls rang for 23 seconds, 37 seconds and 11 seconds before she hung up each time. Remember the state standard is within 10 seconds 90 percent of the time.
It wasn’t until after the nanny’s second hang up that 911 called her back. "Oh my God, Oh my God. Help me!" the nanny said in Spanish on the 911 tape. "He wasn’t breathing. I didn’t get the pulse," Sanchez told NBC 6. "I had to do something." Out of desperation, the nanny drove the baby to the Pembroke Pines fire station down the street. Sage was put on life support and died 13 days later.
"It’s a tragedy," said Missy Hernandez, Sage’s mother. "Everything went wrong that day. And, every person that Sage needed help from let him down that day. And, for that I’ll always be sorry for Sage. I’m so sorry to him."
Missy and Antonio Hernandez were astounded when NBC 6 informed them of the call delays. "It sheds a whole new light on the situation that we never thought, " Antonio Hernandez said. "In a drowning every second counts. Had they responded to the first call within 10 seconds we might not be sitting here today. He might be here," Missy Antonio said.
Al Gross’ family feels the same way. On may 27, the 87-year-old fell ill in his Hallandale apartment. His wife Ida and the housekeeper called 911.
"I kept telling my husband: Open your eyes. I’m working on you! I was really upset because we couldn’t get 911. That’s what upset me more because I knew he was alive," Gross said.
A BSO memo obtained by NBC 6 reveals Ida Gross’ first emergency call rang unanswered for a minute and ten seconds before she hung up and dialed again.
The second call rang for 28 seconds — another hang-up. Finally, the connection was made and paramedics arrived. Al Gross died in the hospital that night. "What would be the excuse for not picking up the phone for a minute and 10 seconds when the standard is 10 seconds? There’s no excuse. It’s totally unacceptable," said Adrienne Krieger, Ida Gross’ daughter.
In fact, in the two weeks analyzed by NBC 6, there was a total of 361 calls that rang for over a minute before an emergency operator answered or the caller hung up the line.
"If we could answer telephone calls on a more expeditious manner all of the time, that would be great. But, we just can’t do that. Our system isn’t set up to allow us to do that," Lauria said.
Lauria said BSO typically has 12 911 call-takers working each shift at its headquarters to answer about 700,000 calls a year.
But on the day Sage drowned, this internal BSO memo shows there were only eight operators on duty when the nanny called for help. When Ida Gross phoned, there were nine.
"Do you feel you have enough call takers handling 911 calls?" Andreu asked. "No. Being in the communications business for 10 years, I guess you never feel like you have enough call-takers," Lauria said.
Especially, Lauria said, to handle Broward’s booming population and the explosion of cell phones. "We try to adhere to the standard as much as possible. It’s not an official policy. It’s very difficult for us to track the numbers," Lauria said.
But at Miami-Dade’s 911 center, call times are tracked each quarter. During the two weeks NBC 6 randomly selected in April and July, 80 percent of emergency calls were answered in less than 10 seconds.
"We’re trying to make that goal of 90 percent. That’s the first marker we go after. We go after that by hiring more people, expanding the call takers’ positions," said Miami-Dade Police Major Tom Gross.
Miami-Dade police have 21 complaint officers each shift to answer the 2.4 million emergency calls that pour in each year.
"You want help and you want that help quickly," Major Gross said. For Sage, the help didn’t come at all. Antonio Hernandez wrote a song to celebrate his son’s life, as he and his wife struggle to cope with their loss and ensure Sage did not die in vain.
"There needs to be a change because I’ll be darned that this would continue to happen. That system is supposed to be there in cases of emergency. And, in this case, my son lost his life," Missy Hernandez said.
BSO has approved 10 more call taker positions. But, it could take several months for them to be filled. Officials do ask the public to dial 911 only for emergencies. The 911 lines get clogged with non-emergency calls.
In Broward, the non-emergency number is 954-765-4321. In Miami-D
ade, the number is 305-4-POLICE.