Tragic Incident Couldn't Happen Here, Dispatchers Say

By: Tony Tagliavia
By: Tony Tagliavia

A then five-year-old Michigan boy lost his mother after 911 dispatchers refused to take his calls seriously. The head of the Lansing 911 center says policies prevent it from happening here.

"Emergency 911: Where's the problem?" a dispatcher asks Robert Turner. "My mom has passed out."

It was a call for help, not unlike the roughly 1,000 calls the Lansing 911 dispatch center receives every day. But this was the way the call from then five-year-old Robert Turner was handled.

"I don't care. You shouldn't be playing on the phone," a dispatcher told Turner.

That was nothing like how it would be handled in Lansing, according to Lansing-Ingham County 911 Director Karen Chadwick. She says there's a simple reason.

"If in doubt, we send it out. Always dispatch," Chadwick said.

But the instinct to speak to an adult is standard procedure.

"Our operators are trained to ask to speak to an adult," Chadwick said.

Still, she says the 50-some dispatchers who staff the center 24 hours a day cannot arbitrarily decide an emergency call is a prank, even at the busiest times.

"Unless we get a hold of a parent and the parent tells us the kid was playing on the phone. That would be the only time," Chadwick said.

Dispatchers at the Lansing 911 center take calls and send officers for the city and all of Ingham County, except for East Lansing and Meridian Township. Chadwick says out of those thousand calls a day countywide, roughly 15 or so are pranks.

But even hang ups become follow ups.

Chadwick says in her three years as director, she hasn't seen any violations of the "when in doubt, send it out" policy. She says dispatchers go through eight months of training, including 140 hours of hands-on phone work.

"They go through every scenario known to us. I'm sure there are some we haven't encountered. But not many," Chadwick said.

The truly tragic story out of Detroit is, of course, much more real than any training scenario.

At the 911 center in Lansing, a copy of the story is tacked to the supervisor's desk.


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