Calling 9-1-1 doesn't mean they'll be able to find you
Posted May 22, 2018 3:17 p.m. EDT
DAYTON, Ohio -- Cincinnati teen Kyle Plush did what he was supposed to do in an emergency: He called 9-1-1.
But police couldn't find him and he suffocated in his family's van after he became trapped between the back seat and the back door.
The case, which drew national attention and anger -- much of it directed at the police response -- showed the imperfections of the 9-1-1 system. A positive outcome often depends on the accuracy of information provided by callers, many of whom are in extreme distress.
An example of that occurred in Dayton last September.
For eight minutes on Sept. 18, 2017, a desperate Charles Romine, 71, sought help from police after calling 9-1-1, telling a Montgomery County Regional Dispatch Center operator he was in an alley across from the Community Blood Center at 349 South Main St.
Dayton Police responded to that location but Romine was not there. A search of the surrounding area turned up no trace of him and efforts to reach him by phone were unsuccessful.
Romine's body was found two days later along the banks of Wolf Creek, several miles away from the initial search location. Romine's grandson, Darshawn Romine, said the family is still searching for answers.
"We are still hurting," he said. "It's hard to look at pictures. Nine-one-one should be able to find you."
Police say an attempt to locate Romine on Tuesday, Sept. 19, using GPS data from his phone was unsuccessful because the phone was not connected to the network. The following day, Romine's body was found with the help of "historical GPS data provided by the cellular telephone company," according to a Dayton Police statement.
"According to Regional Dispatch supervisors, call evaluators are trained that the primary source of location information comes from the caller," the police said in a statement after the incident. "At times, the GPS coordinates are not available or can be less accurate than the information provided by the caller. Hence, Montgomery County Regional Dispatch personnel relied upon location information as provided by Mr. Romine."
The regional dispatch system doesn't include all jurisdictions within the county, but all 9-1-1 calls from Dayton are routed there.
Rob Streck, chief deputy of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office, declined direct comment on the Romine case, but did say operators are told to focus on the location provided by the caller because the location technology is not consistently accurate.
"Their phone could be showing up in a 10-block radius or it could be showing up pinpoint in a building you are standing in, and right now it is kind of a coin toss which one is coming up," Streck said.
The Plush incident, which was blamed in part on technical problems at the command center, led to an internal police investigation and an emotional hearing at City Hall. Cincinnati City Council member Wendell Young apologized later for comments made to the family at that meeting. Mayor John Cranley also apologized to the family for what happened to their son, who died in a parked van in the parking lot at his high school.
Plush could barely breath when he used Siri on his iPhone to call 9-1-1, telling the operator he was at "Seven Hills" and was trapped. His voice was so strained, police who responded were told to look for an elderly woman in a vehicle. The operator said she could barely hear what Plush was saying.
Police were unable to find the teen, even though they drove through the school's parking lot several times. Kyle's father, Ron Plush, found the van with his son's body inside later that evening. At the City Council hearing, Ron Plush said his son knew his one hope was to call 9-1-1.
"Kyle knew when he was in trouble ... he needed to call the one entity that could respond quickly and ultimately address the immediate crisis the best," he said.
Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot K. Isaac said computer problems at the dispatch center would not allow use of GPS tracking information to aid in the search for the teen. Isaac also confirmed that the responding officers did not get out of their car when they searched the parking lots at the school, opting instead to search while inside the vehicle.
"Their explanation was to cover more ground," Isaac said.
Ron Plush told the City Council, "One thing I have heard over the past month is what happened to Kyle was the perfect storm. So was this a perfect storm or a series of multiple failures?"
Even when a caller to 9-1-1 has the correct street of an accident, an error on location can endanger the victims.
It happened April 9 in Greene County along South Alpha Bellbrook Road when two cars were involved in a head-on crash. The caller led the operator to believe the crash happened near the wrong cross street, which was in Beavercreek Twp. A medic unit was dispatched from the township but was recalled when it was discovered the crash was actually in Sugarcreek Twp.
Sugarcreek Fire Chief Jeff Leaming said emergency crews were sent to the scene as quickly as possible but the error delayed their response by several minutes. "Both drivers were trapped and seconds matter," he said. Fortunately, both survived.
Leaming said no location data was available to the operator through the phone system. "So dispatch had no other way to determine where (the crash victims) were located other than to take them at their word that they were at this particular intersection, when in actuality they were probably a mile and a half from that intersection into Sugarcreek Twp. So there was an inherent delay in getting equipment to the location."
Leaming is hopeful the 9-1-1 system will improve to the point where accurate location data flows to the dispatchers electronically.
What can drivers do to help? "People need to give the dispatchers accurate information," Leaming said, "and if you are on the road you need to know where you are at."
Tech guru Gayle Jenkins said an iPhone feature -- Emergency SOS -- allows users to share their location with individual contacts in an emergency, sending text messages that include a map of the user's exact location.
Only designated individuals -- a friend, family member, neighbor or co-worker, for example -- receive the alert.
It is triggered by clicking the screen's on/off button on the upper right side of the iPhone five times; and just as the text is sent, the phone will initiate a 9-1-1 call.
The text and map do not go to the 9-1-1 dispatcher, but in case of an emergency, family and friends could share that location with authorities. "It is really specific. It can be within five feet," said Jenkins, who owns DNA Computers in Kettering.
Emergency SOS can be found in an iPhone's settings directory. For Android users, several apps are available that offer many of the same functions.
Managers of the dispatch center urge people who set up their emergency contacts on their phone to not test it on their own so that 9-1-1 operators are not inundated with non-emergency test calls.
The NewsCenter 7 I-Team put it to the test, under the supervision of managers of the Montgomery County Regional Dispatch Center. Clicking the on/off button on the iPhone launched a countdown to allow the user to stop the call from going forward. If the call is allowed to continue, the voice connection is made with a 9-1-1 operator, while the text message and map go to the designated emergency contacts in less than 10 seconds. The texted map was very accurate.
Jim Otte writes for the Dayton Daily News. Email: Jim.Otte(at)coxinc.com.
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