Friday, January 08, 1999

Reinstating 911 dispatcher is bad call

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Calling 911 is supposed to be a guarantee, a guarantee that help will be on the way as soon as possible. The number and the system stand for rapid response to an emergency.

        This week's decision to reinstate a 911 dispatcher who didn't send help when it was requested is a mistake. It tears a big hole in that guarantee.

        I don't know Eugenia Boiman, but I've read about what the 911 dispatcher did one night a year ago December. That night she failed to send help after she told a cop she would. She ignored her boss's order to send help. She canceled a police run because she thought it was a duplication of efforts. Her actions contributed to a 48-minute delay in discovering two mortally wounded Cincinnati cops, Daniel Pope and Ronald Jeter.

        The dispatcher was fired in March. She felt the firing was wrong and fought for her job. Now, after an independent arbitrator's investigation and binding decision, she will soon be back as a 911 dispatcher.

        Reinstating a 911 dispatcher who won't send help when it's asked for undercuts the public trust in the system, and the trust police officers, firefighters and other public servants place in the system as their ultimate backup. It shouldn't happen.

        Dispatchers for 911 who do not send help do not deserve a second chance. Nothing personal. It just comes with the job. The same goes for a dishonest cop or a teacher who molests children. Jobs and systems that deal in the public trust must be protected by very high standards, and the people in those jobs must be held to extremely high expectations. That's just the way it is.

Send help
        Early on the morning of Dec. 6, while Daniel Pope and Ronald Jeter lay mortally wounded on the floor of a Clifton Heights apartment, the dispatcher was at work.

        She had a phone conversation with Officer Chad Richter at District 4 headquarters. The officer had just finished talking with a man who lived across the street from the house where the two cops were shot.

        The man was upset. He had called 911 and asked for the police to run by and check on that house. But no one ever showed up. The man said he had heard shots fired and saw someone carrying a gun leave the house.

        Officer Richter urged the dispatcher to send someone to the house. The dispatcher told the officer that police were already in the neighborhood investigating a shooting and she canceled the police run because the incidents were “all related.”

        Officer Richter again urged her to send someone to that house. “We might,” he told her, “have another body.” The dispatcher said she would. But she never did.

        The dispatcher later told investigators she doesn't know why she canceled the run.

        “I'm gonna admit to you on tape, that was very stupid of me,” she said. “If I'm at fault, I'm gonna accept the blame.”

        I agree. Accept the blame and the consequences.

        The dispatcher's actions wasted precious seconds when there were none to spare. And all those people looking to 911 for immediate help received none.

Life's lessons
        Since its inception, 911 has built such an admirable record of dependability it has become ingrained in our culture.

        “Call 911” is a lesson we teach preschoolers. If you need help right away, get on the phone and dial 9-1-1. Countless stories exist about little kids using what they learned to save the lives of grownups.

        In a world of uncertainties, 911 has become something we can depend on.

        The police see 911 as their lifeline. When the cops call in and say, “Officer needs assistance,” they automatically assume help is on the way.

        Same for the rest of us. When things go bad, call 911 and you're safe.

        Even the smallest seed of doubt is too much in those moments.

        The critical trust 911 is built on erodes when a dispatcher who failed is returned to the system.

        That may be harsh, but that's just the way it is.

        Enquirer columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.