Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Today's Herald-Tribune by Zac Anderson

Death results in fast change in 911 procedure

By Zac Anderson

Published: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 at 12:29 a.m.
Sarasota County will immediately change how it handles 911 calls as a result of an infant's death last month, when emergency workers were sent to the wrong address 30 miles from the baby's home.

Every 911 caller will now be asked for the closest cross street to their address, after an investigation by Sarasota County sheriff's Capt. Jeff Bell.

"The added variable of obtaining a cross street greatly reduces the likelihood of an addressing error by the caller," Bell wrote in the investigation released Tuesday.

The report does not recommend any discipline for the four 911 call takers involved with the call. An agency spokesman said the call takers were not at fault because they "followed procedures."

Three-month-old Nelson Alexander Booth Almeida was not breathing on Jan. 31 at 2:45 a.m. when his panicked mother called for help. She mistakenly gave her address as 1280 Highland Ave. -- an Englewood address -- instead of 1280 Highland St. in Sarasota, delaying an ambulance by 12 minutes.

Aside from verifying cross streets, Bell's report mentions eight other potential 911 policy changes, including better maps to locate cell phone calls. But none of the other suggestions will be implemented immediately.

Better mapping would require technology upgrades. The Sheriff's Office also wants to evaluate each of the changes for how they might affect ambulance and police response times, said sheriff's spokesman Lt. Chuck Lesaltato.

"There may be more changes," Lesaltato said. "But we have to remember that seconds count."

Bell's report also recommends the Sheriff's Office support a proposed county ordinance allowing public safety officials to change similar street names. The County Commission will consider the ordinance March 23.

One of the big questions in the investigation was how the initial call taker, Keri Halpin, used the cell phone mapping technology available in the 911 center.

Anytime someone calls 911 from a cell phone, their location is immediately visible on a map on the call taker's screen.

If the caller has a newer cell phone, the map shows the person's location within a few hundred meters.

But even with older cell phones the map shows the nearest cell tower, which is usually within a mile of the caller.

Experts noted after the mix-up that a quick map check should have shown Halpin that the caller was nowhere near Englewood.

And in fact the map did show the 911 tower's location as Independence Court in Sarasota, Bell's report notes.

But Sarasota County's system erases the initial map when the call taker enters a precise address, which Halpin did within seconds.

"At no time do both locations appear on the map," Bell wrote. "This severely limits the operator's map recognition time. ... It also prevents the operator from a comparison view."

Bell is still exploring whether a 911 mapping system can chart both points on one map: The initial satellite location transmitted from the cell phone and the address provided by the caller.

If the technology will not allow a single map, Bell recommended two separate maps that could be compared side by side.

Lesaltato said Sheriff Tom Knight reviewed and supported Bell's recommendations.

Citizens who have been advocating 911 reforms since the death of North Port mother Denise Amber Lee after a Charlotte County 911 center error last year applauded Sarasota County's move.

"Anything in that direction is a great idea," said David Garofalo, a North Port city commissioner and member of the Denise Amber Lee Foundation. "Asking a cross street can't hurt."

Nelson Almeida, the father of the dead child, also expressed support but wondered why it took a tragedy to prompt improvements.

"How can we not have better maps already?" he said. "They have helicopters and Taser guns but 911 isn't important?"