911 delay blamed on employee, phone

Staff WriterAugust 28, 2009 

DURHAM –- A delay in response to a fatal fire was due to employee error and the failure of a popular internet-based phone system to display the caller’s information, including address, the city’s 911 director said Friday.

Marvin Jacobs, 74, was found dead inside his home at 110 Shantercliff Place on August 17 while firefighters were putting out a fire at his home.

Claudia Brueckner, who lives across the street, called 911 to report the fire. She was connected to emergency dispatcher Theresa Hopkins, who could not understand what Brueckner was saying, even after the neighbor spelled the street name.

Brueckner called from her Vonage phone, which is supposed to display her address and phone number to emergency dispatchers. That didn’t happen, said Jim Soukup, Durham 911 director.

The miscommunication caused Hopkins to dispatch firefighters to a street with a similar sounding name in south Durham. It wasn’t until 4 minutes and 32 seconds later that the right address, in northern Durham, was identified. By then, area firefighters were already enroute.

Hopkins, a dispatcher for three years, didn’t ask for the caller’s phone number and should have seen that her computer didn’t recognize the address, Soukup said. Unrecognizable addresses receive a yellow alert, which pops up on the dispatcher’s computer screen.

By looking at the screen, Hopkins would’ve known she had the wrong address. Then she could have asked for more information, including cross streets and whether the home was in north or south Durham. Emergency dispatchers are trained to handle internet-based calls, Soukup said.

Hopkins was fired on Thursday after an investigation conducted by the 911 center.

“We asked her explicitly why did she not use the tools available,” said Soukup, who did not elaborate on whether the time delay would have made a difference. “She offered no explanation. Why that occurred I could not tell you other than she could not offer an explanation. It was incorrect and not according to procedure.”

The center has reached out to Vonage and has filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission to correct the problem, Soukup said. Vonage did not return a request for comment Friday afternoon.

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