911: Help on hold in Las Vegas

Posted at 11:45 PM, Feb 04, 2016

When it's a matter of life and death, we all know what numbers to call.

But what if no one answers at 911 while precious minutes are ticking away? 

We saw that happen earlier this week when Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's 911 system crashed. But it's a problem ABC15's sister station KTNV has been investigating for months. 

Chief Investigator Darcy Spears with Contact 13 has the devastating story of help on hold, and how the 911 system failed a local family.

"We took Calvin for a walk, came home, always make coffee." 

Dec. 17 started out like any normal morning for Debbie and her husband, Steve.  

"Steve sat in his normal chair and checked his texts. And then he said, "I'm gonna go take a shower."

That's where everything normal came to an abrupt end.

"I think I walked from the coffee pot to there and I heard... Like a thump. I ran in there and he was on the floor of the shower. And I kept trying to pull at his arm -- Steve! Steve! Get up!"

Realizing something was desperately wrong, Debbie grabbed her landline to call 911.

"And it said... It said..."

911 recording: "You have reached 911 emergency. Please do not hang up. Your call will be answered in the order received."

"And I thought, no! That can't be right! And I kept yelling, 'Please help me! Please answer! Please help me!'"

But Debbie would stay on hold as Steve's life slipped away. She also tried from his cell with the same result.

"So I went next door."

Her next-door neighbor called and also got the recording.

While one neighbor performed CPR, another stayed on the phone, and finally...

"911 emergency. Do you need police, fire or medical?"

Neighbor: We need medical right now! He's on the floor, he's unresponsive and has no heart rate!
Operator: OK.
Neighbor: We're performing CPR! We need somebody right now!
Operator: OK. Help is on the way.

Contact 13 learned it took 911 more than three and a half minutes to answer the call. The national standard is ten seconds or less.

Darcy: You don't know what would've happened had that call been answered right away?
Debbie: Right.
Darcy: Had they been here five minutes earlier?
Debbie: Maybe he would still be here... I don't know.  I wish he was.

"It's going to be a big question in her life from here on out. How does anybody reconcile that?" Darcy Spears asked LVMPD 911 Bureau Radio Systems Director Michael Barnbeck.

"At the end of the day, we all have to be honest. Our agency has to be honest," Barnbeck said. "We went through this major shift with the 911 system. We've been doing our best to provide that safety so this question will never come up again in the future with any other citizens."

Barnbeck says LVMPD switched to a new 911 system a week before Debbie and her neighbors' frantic calls for help. He admits they weren't fully up to speed.

Darcy Spears: Here's a woman who lost her husband. She's in the process of watching him die and she gets a recording when she calls the three numbers that should be, or could be life-saving.

Michael Barnbeck: There is nothing that I can say to make her or anybody in the community feel any better about the situation.

Contact 13 learned it took 10 minutes from the time Debbie made her first call to when help was dispatched. 

Around that time, there were 62 calls holding on 911, with just six people answering the phone. 

Director Barnbeck says the numbers tell the story. They simply didn't have enough staff.

Darcy: Should people expect to continue to get a recording when they call 911?
Michael: Yes. And that is an industry standard throughout the United States.

Even so, Barnbeck says they've made changes to handle calls more efficiently. And they will be asking to add more staff.

"All I want to do this for is so that it never happens again. To any person. Ever," Debbie said.

But Contact 13 learned it did.

We discovered more people who say help for them was on hold as well. 

It's something the 911 bureau calls unacceptable.