Holding The Line

911 operators answer the phone 1,000 times a night. But what if the line goes down?

As the shadows lengthen, Minneapolis City Hall sheds its bustling diurnal disposition for the stately air of an old museum. In the center of its cavernous foyer, beneath vaulted ceilings and an enormous stained-glass window, the figure of the Father of the Waters watches over the hushed expanse. The stillness is punctured only occasionally by the sound of heels on the cool, gray marble floors and the chuckle of the security guard as he trades barbs with another night staffer.

Ten feet below, the action is just beginning. Under the eerie glow of a faux skylight, the rings of a dozen phones blur into one long peal. The 30-by-50 room is a tangle of equipment and wires, millions of black, red, and translucent lines; operators are hunkered down, headsets in place, fingers flying over the keyboards. There are shifts--usually on weekend nights--when they'll be glued to their chairs for hours, backs screaming and bladders ready to burst, trapped until the ringing abates. Over time you learn to ignore your body's messages, they counsel, and to pace your fluid intake.

But this is a rare cool, quiet summer Saturday night, and there's time for breaks at the Minneapolis Emergency Communications Center. Operators revel in the luxury of being able to stand and stretch, shake the cramps out of their hands, and exchange stories. One of the women--90 percent of the staff is female--is getting married soon; there's talk of wedding presents, menus, guest lists. Then it's on to supervisors, overtime, vacation requests. Finally the talk turns, as it regularly does, to Joe Louis Brown.

Brown was the man who, at 8:30 a.m. on a Monday morning in May, spotted a stranger swigging beer on the front steps of the house next door to his in Minneapolis's Field neighborhood. The event didn't sound like a crisis to the operator who took Brown's 911 call; so rather than entering the

information into the computerized emergency response system, she sent an e-mail message to the 3rd Precinct notifying officers of a "suspicious person." When no cops arrived at his neighbor's house Brown called back twice, but because a call hadn't been logged, the next two operators had no idea, nor record, of what Brown was talking about. As they scrambled to make sense of his story, the stranger was busy cleaning out the neighbor's house. Frustrated, Brown finally called the mayor's office. That night, the incident would lead the 10 p.m. news.

Down in "the dungeon," the memory of the episode is still raw. Of course the operator--whom no one will identify--made a mistake, the women grouse, and of course it's all clear as day in hindsight. But why don't the TV reporters, the City Council members, and all the callers who've tied up the lines to complain try to spend a night clamped to the phones? Why don't they try juggling five angry callers and two crabby squads, on the 50th hour of the work week, with a computer that seems constantly about to crash? Don't they realize that it's only through a combination of luck and bone-hard work that worse snafus don't happen every day?

Minneapolis's emergency response system, the people in the dungeon say--along with a number of other 911 insiders and experts--is on the verge of collapse. The department is chronically understaffed, the computer and phone systems are old and technologically outdated, and operators and dispatchers are crammed into poorly designed workstations that have repeatedly been cited as causing injuries by the Minnesota Department of Labor. Employee turnover is astronomical--nearly half of the new hires are gone within two years--and morale is at an all-time low.

"The 911 department is a mess," says Bruce Johnson, a director of the Minneapolis Police Federation. "They're putting in 12-to-14-hour days, four or five days in a row, and are missing things they wouldn't ordinarily because they're overworked, overly tired, and stressed out."

Across the river in St. Paul, things aren't looking much better. "We have nights when the phones could ring for four and five minutes without an answer," says Lt. Dick Dugan, supervisor of the St. Paul Emergency Communications Center. "The stress factor is incredible. People are calling up and screaming at you because you couldn't answer their call right away."

So far, Minneapolis and St. Paul have skirted the kinds of mishaps that spawn lawsuits--like the 1995 incident in Phoenix, when a woman's estranged husband showed up at her house with a gun. Suzanne Bartok phoned 911 and was told that police were on their way. In fact, the dispatchers had given the call a low priority, and by the time the police arrived some 11 minutes later, Bartok and her boyfriend were dead. Earlier this year, a harried dispatcher in Albany, New York, failed to inform police that a caller was screaming for help, and by the time the police arrived at the apartment, the 22-year-old nursing student who lived there had been beaten to death. "Minutes matter," says Minneapolis dispatcher Jane de Kock. "I hope it doesn't take something like this to wake up the city to the fact that we need help."

"NINE-ONE-ONE,"Carrie Peterson says briskly. The green screen of her computer monitor comes alive as the location of the caller's phone automatically appears. "There's a fistfight going down at the corner of Chicago and Lake," he announces. Peterson asks if he knows the people involved (he doesn't), and has him describe their appearance--race, gender, height, build, how they're dressed. Did he see any weapons, she queries. No. She thanks him for the information, assigns a priority number, asks if he'd like to leave his name--he declines--and says that a squad will arrive shortly.

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