Delayed 9-1-1 Response a Valid Question

From Naples Daily News Edition
Original publication date: Feb. 1

Early one evening last October, John Hilton frantically performed CPR on his father as his wife, Shanelle, talked to a 911 dispatcher who assured her help was on the way.

It was — only to the wrong house.

What happened to the Hiltons is an example of a rare but elusive glitch in the county’s state-of-the art emergency dispatch system. In their case, it added about six minutes to the response to their home, a delay emergency officials don’t believe made any difference, but that could prove devastating in other circumstances.

Just after 8 p.m. on Oct. 4, John Hilton found his father, who lived with the family at 2114 55th St. S.W., unresponsive in his room. Shanelle Hilton called 911. Initially, the dispatcher questioned whether the address, which is in Golden Gate just east of Santa Barbara Boulevard was in Collier County. “I had to argue with the 911 operator,” Shanelle Hilton said.

According to Cmdr. Bill Rule, who is in charge of the Collier County Sheriff’s communications group that handles all 911 calls, the computer-assisted dispatch system did not recognize the address as valid. A few years ago, the entire county was mapped with the information used by 911 to pinpoint locations. There are more than 200,000 addresses in the system. For some reason, the Hiltons’ wasn’t one of them.

“There is just no way of knowing why the address range in question was not entered into the original county GIS database when it was created. Numbers could have been written down wrong, transposed, omitted,” Rule said.

Instead of emergency crews responding to 2114 55th St. S.W., they went to 2114 55th Terrace S.W., exactly one block west of the Hilton home and the closest match the computer could find to the address Shanelle Hilton gave.

The first units were there in four minutes. Finding no emergency, they went around back to an apartment on the same property, again without finding an emergency.

An ambulance, a fire truck and a sheriff’s deputy all responded to the Hilton call. Realizing some mistake had been made, they fanned out looking for the source.

Meanwhile, John Hilton was with his father, dutifully following the CPR instructions relayed by the operator, who remained on the line.

About seven minutes after the call was made, the Hiltons realized the paramedics were on the wrong block. “They’re on the wrong street. They need to come one street over. One street to the east,” John Hilton can be heard saying on the 911 recording.

At one point, the Hiltons sent their elementary school-aged children into the yard to try to flag down the crews. “The ambulance drove by. The kids were chasing the ambulance,” Shanelle Hilton said. “I’ve never seen such a fiasco.”

Ten minutes and 30 seconds after the call was made, a sheriff’s deputy entered the Hilton house and took over CPR. Fire trucks were next, then finally an ambulance. Hilton’s father, who was 68, was pronounced dead at the scene. He had not been seen for several hours prior to the 911 call and Jeff Page, chief of Collier County EMS, doubts the minutes lost in confusion over the address could have been used to save him.

Rule estimated about 10 address validation errors, as the

Oct. 4 scenario is called, are discovered each month. Although it wasn’t the case in the Hilton call, they typically crop up in newer neighborhoods where addresses might not have been added to the system, he said. Other communities that have experienced rapid growth have also experienced validation errors, sheriff’s officials said. When they are discovered, they are corrected in the database. Considering the county 911 system fields more than 100,000 calls each year, validation errors occur in about one-tenth of one percent of all calls.

A communications staff member actively looks for validation errors in the 911 system, according to sheriff’s spokeswoman Karie Partington.

But unfortunately, Rule said he knows of no way residents can check in advance to see if their address is logged correctly into the computer-assisted dispatch system. While similar to the GIS maps on the Collier County Property Appraiser’s website, the maps used by 911 are separate and distinct. “The 911 GIS database is on a closed system and cannot be accessed by the public. If the operator cannot validate an address to their satisfaction, they have the ability to bypass the address verification process and send the call anyway,” Rule said. In other words, if a 911 operator questions whether your address is in Collier County, insist that it is. Offer directions and nearby landmarks.

Minutes, and more, could be at stake.

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