Sunday, April 9, 2006

when calls for help go unheard

what do you do when you're a child and the lone adult in your house collapses? 5-year-old robert turner did exactly as he had been taught -- he called 911 and reported that his mother had "passed out." unfortunately, the 911 dispatcher demanded to talk to an adult in the house -- which was clearly not possible -- and then "hanged up" on the boy.

robert called 911 for a second time about three hours later and again told a dispatcher that his mom had passed out. again, the 911 dispatcher demanded to speak to his mother and then threatened the young boy: "Now put her on the phone before I send the police out there to knock on the door and you going to be in trouble." robert got scared -- and frustrated, no doubt -- and hung up the phone.

the police (not paramedics) did arrive some time later and found robert's mother dead. there is speculation that she would have lived had the first 911 dispatcher taken robert's call seriously and sent help.

this case has ignited controversy and the detroit police department has promised a full investigation. a 911 union president said that more than 25% of calls received are pranks and that robert's voice was inaudible at times. anyone who has ever tried to hold phone conversations with 5-year-olds can attest that it's not always easy, but 911 dispatchers have a special responsibility to listen carefully and to act appropriately. if prank calls are such a problem, maybe local agencies should consider instituting small sanctions like assigning the perpetrators some level of community service to discourage such behavior.

celebrity lawyer geoffry fieger has taken on the case, so we should expect a media blitz and a large wrongful death lawsuit. i hope in the midst of the debate we remember that there are children who are alone and afraid and when they find the courage to call for help, it's our responsibility to make sure they are heard.

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