LEBANON, Tenn. – An antiquated 911 system in one of Tennessee’s fasted growing counties has drawn sharp criticism from law enforcement and one former official said lives have been lost because of it.
Every year 25,000 people call 911 in Wilson County but the first person who answers the phone does not have the ability to dispatch help, the only thing they can do is transfer the call they receive.
Over the last month NewsChannel 5 has analyzed dozens of phones calls, in one instance a caller was transferred three times while trying to report a possible drunk driver.
“They keep just transferring me!” the caller could be heard saying.
“That’s what keeps me awake, knowing there’s a better way,” says J.R. Kelley who was hired to direct the county’s 911 call center in 2009.
The outdated system he says is costing precious seconds in emergency situations and he believes it is costing lives.
“The call takers do an outstanding job, I don’t fault them in the least,” he said.
Anytime someone needs help in Wilson County their call goes first to the 911 call center. Those call takers are not dispatchers, they have no ability to help. All they can do is transfer calls to police, fire, the Wilson County Sheriff, or Wilson County EMA.
Every single call must be transferred.
In calls obtained by NewsChannel 5, some callers were forced to repeat the same vital information multiple times as precious seconds ticked away.
“Maybe years ago in someone’s mind it made sense to operate this way but not in today’s world, not in today’s technology. There’s a better way,” he added.
One call has stayed with J.R. for the last two years – it happened on a cold fall evening in 2014 at 6:48pm.
“This lady hit me in the back end,” a called could be heard saying.
A fender bender left two cars stalled in the middle of a dark I40 in Wilson County near mile marker 231.
At 6:51 one caller hauntingly predicts the future.
“They’re getting ready to get sandwiched and get killed. I almost killed them,” one caller could be heard saying.
Records show that 54 seconds passed before that caller was transferred to Lebanon Police – where she repeated her entire story a second time to a dispatcher.
“Ok is it a wreck on the side of the road?” the dispatcher said.
“No it needs to be on the side of the road, I almost killed them!” the caller responded.
Before help could arrive, THP says an impaired driver on a pickup truck identified as Chase Fakes, slammed in the initial accident causing a deadly chain reaction crash.
Killed instantly were Monica “Dee Dee” Cruce, her husband Michael and their two teenage boys, Stephen and Joshua.
“If you had come to the funeral we had, you would see the devastation of 54 seconds – I hope it never happens to anybody else,” Monica’s father Morris Alvey says.
Morris’ daughter, grandsons and son-in-law all died after their Honda Civic was hit. There were no flashing lights to alert them to the first fender bender. Help only came after a pickup truck slammed in to them.
“Why was nobody there? Why did no one come after the first accident?” Morris adds,
This is just one family and one call.
“I think my family was cheated, I think my two grandsons were cheated not being able to live out their dream,” their grandfather says holding back tears.
Every year 25 thousand calls are made in Wilson County. Of the 94 counties in Tennessee they are the only one where calls are not routed directly to a dispatcher.
“We have an obligation to them to do the best we cannot wait till they sue us. That’s not being proactive that’s being reactive,” J.R. Kelley says about the system he says is broken.
Having tried desperately to change the system with no success the 64-year-old says he had no other choice but to resign in April of 2016.
“The whole family from being killed (maybe) it could have potentially prevented that? And that’s what keeps me awake at night,” he says about the crash which killed the Cruce family.
“Those seconds we took if we gave that additional time to first responders maybe they would be living today, the whole family would be living today,” he wonders.
J.R. knows nothing likely could have stopped the driver who hit the Cruce family. He can’t help but wonder though if Michael, Monica, Joshua and Stephen might still be alive if they had just crossed county lines.
“My heart goes out to them, they were depending on emergency services and the 911 system to come to their aid. And we didn’t do the best we could do”