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Just hold on, 911 officials say of busy signals, but frustrated callers want explanation

| Saturday, May 18, 2013, 12:09 a.m.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Firefighters work to extinguish flames from a residence along Stonehaven Court in Plum on Thursday May 16, 2013.

A 911 recording is the last thing a woman wants to hear when she's standing on the roof of her burning house calling for help.

“When I called, it said, ‘All circuits are busy. Please try again,' ” Cathy Tejchman, 40, of Penn Hills said three days after the fire on Tuesday morning at her Orin Street home. “I was on my roof trying to get through, and I'm like, ‘Are you kidding me?' ”

Allegheny County emergency response center officials said the recordings kick in when many calls come at once, as they did in Tejchman's case and on Thursday during a house fire on Stonehaven Court in Plum as multiple witnesses dialed 911.

The officials said they felt the need to investigate and talk about their procedures because the callers and others expressed confusion and anger over delays in reaching human operators in both instances.

“Unfortunately, when a situation happens like this, we get a lot of calls for one situation,” said Hank Caparelli, a 911 communications manager at the Point Breeze center. “I understand the frustration, but we get a lot of calls, and we process them as soon as we can.”

On Thursday, seven call-takers were fielding Allegheny County 911 calls, said Rebecca Frazier, another communications manager. The center got its first call about the Plum fire at 5:48 p.m., and firefighters were en route at 5:50 p.m., officials said. In the six minutes surrounding the first fire call, the center had 32 emergency calls. Eight reported the fire, Frazier said.

In that situation, “the eighth call goes into a recording that advises the caller to stay on the line,” she said.

Then the calls bounce to eight call-takers assigned to calls from Pittsburgh neighborhoods. If they, too, are busy, the calls go to 40 emergency dispatchers, Frazier said.

The center receives about 2,600 emergency calls during a typical eight-hour afternoon shift, Caparelli said.

Calls to 911 centers during the busiest hour of the day should be answered within 10 seconds, according to standards set by the Alexandria, Va.-based National Emergency Number Association. Of all 911 calls, 95 percent should be answered within 20 seconds, the group states.

The county's emergency center said the vast majority of calls it receives are answered within that range.

“It's usually a matter of seconds, two or three seconds,” Frazier said.

Caparelli said nine out of 10 calls are answered within one minute. “In this situation,” Caparelli said of the Plum fire, “we did our job.”

Officials also investigated how center workers handled the Penn Hills emergency calls, Frazier said.

“It did end up that there were no problems on the 911 end,” she said.

An emergency operator took the first report of a fire at 5:23 a.m. — the same time Tejchman said she attempted to call. During the next five minutes, the center received seven emergency calls.

“None of the callers were verbally placed on hold by employees, but a few may have received the recording to stay on the line,” said Amie Downs, a county spokeswoman.

The call was dispatched at 5:25 a.m., with police officers arriving at 5:27 a.m., records show. Firefighters arrived at 5:38 a.m., and a Penn Hills firefighter said crews quickly rescued Tejchman from the roof.

“There were not any problems with this fire call,” Downs said.

Tejchman's recollection differed.

She thought a neighbor might have called 911 about 5 a.m. and remembered some firefighters arriving just before 6 a.m. She said her fiance reached emergency operators at one point to report the fire.

County officials said it was hard for an operator to understand him because he was coughing, possibly from smoke inhalation.

But for those who receive a message when calling 911 asking them to stay on the line, Frazier recommends they do just that.

“It's so extremely important that they not hang up,” she said. “I realize the public thinks they are being put on hold, but they aren't.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com. Staff writer Jody Weigand contributed to this report.

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