By Matt Schepeler
Getting to a fire in Brooklyn took much more time than it should have, due to 9-1-1 dispatchers not listening to what different callers were saying.
On Tuesday, Feb. 27, firefighters were dispatched to 302 Case Road in Norvell Township, rather than 302 Case Road in Brooklyn, despite being told in five separate telephone calls from three different callers to 911 that the house was located in Brooklyn, not Norvell.
In each of the 9-1-1 calls, which were obtained by The Brooklyn Exponent through a Freedom of Information request, the callers made an effort to stress that the house is located in Brooklyn.
In the first call, the caller stated “Our house is on fire. We are at 302 Case Road, Brooklyn, Michigan. Our house is literally on fire.”
911 Audio #1
When asked if she could get everyone out of the house, the caller replied “Yeah, yeah, just make sure you sent it to Columbia [Township] because . . .” at which point, the 9-1-1 dispatcher cut off the caller, asking if she could see flames.
“Tell them to hurry, please,” the caller said before the 9-1-1 dispatcher hung up the phone.
In the second call, a different caller said “Yes, yes, my house is on fire . . . Columbia Township . . .” however, the dispatcher spoke over the man when he stressed the home was located in Columbia Township.
“One second, I have to get my cat,” said the caller, before the line went dead.
911 Audio #2
In the third call, another woman stated “My house is on fire.” When asked where it was, she stated “302 Case Road, Columbia Township.” However, again, the dispatcher spoke over the caller, while she was stressing that the house was in Columbia Township.
“Hurry, hurry,” said the woman before the dispatcher hung up on her.
In the fourth call, a different dispatcher answered the call, but, again, missed what was clearly being stated. “I am at 302 Case Road, Brooklyn, Michigan. We just called a couple of times. We need the fire department right now.”
“We have got everybody coming, OK,” the dispatcher stated before hanging up the phone.
In the fifth call, the caller was clearly fed up.
“It is me again. Are they going to the right address,” she asked.
“Yes they are, 302 Case Road, correct?” answered dispatch.
“It is in Columbia Township, not Norvell,” said the caller. “Every time I call 9-1-1 they go to the wrong place,” said the caller. “It is smoldering.”
911 Audio #3
It was at this point that the 9-1-1 dispatcher finally caught on. “Are you on Case Road, across from Austin and Mill?”
“No. I am on Case Road in the Village of Brooklyn,” she replied. “I am in Columbia Township, across the street from the old Ford Plant.”
“They are going to the wrong place.”
“Okay. You are at 302, right,” asked dispatch.
“Yes. I am in the village though. I watched the fire trucks drive by,” said the caller before she was put on hold.
“Hurry, come on, hurry up,” the exasperated woman said, as the recording continued while she was on hold.
“Oh my God, they are going to the wrong f—ing house.
“Hurry. Hurry. Are you there?”
911 Audio #4
When the dispatcher picked the phone back up, she said “Ma’am, we are getting everyone out there, okay?”
“We just run into this problem everytime we call 9-1-1,” replied the woman.
Since dispatch thought the fire was in Norvell Township, the Napoleon Township Fire Department, which provides fire protection for Norvell Township, was sent to 302 Case Road in Norvell Township. Columbia Township, which responds to calls in Napoleon as part of a mutual aid agreement, also responded to the Norvell address, driving within a block of the actual fire. Because the fire was enclosed inside the house, smoke could not yet be seen coming from the house.
While arriving at the dispatched address, Napoleon fire officials questioned the address and location of the fire. They were then notified that the fire was at 302 Case Road in the Village of Brooklyn across from the old Ford plant. All units turned around and headed back to Brooklyn, said Columbia Fire Chief Scott Cota.
Fortunately, Columbia Engine 4 quickly arrived on the scene with two firefighters, still with no visual indication from the outside of the house that there was a fire inside. A few seconds later a report was given of heavy smoke upstairs that had not yet vented to the outside. Columbia Engine 2, which had been dispatched to Norvell, then arrived and made the initial attack on the second-floor fire.
911 Audio #5
“Crews experienced brownout conditions and high heat upon hitting the second floor,” said Cota. The fire was located in a bedroom. “It was so hot that it was hard to pinpoint what was on fire and what wasn’t with fire on the thermal camera.”
The fire was knocked down, the smoke was hydraulically ventilated and the remainder of the fire was put out.
“The thing that saved that house was the construction with the original lathe and plaster in it, which kept all the heat in and stopped the fire from progressing.”
Cota said the second-floor sustained heavy smoke and heat damage but will be able to be rebuilt.
No fire personnel was injured. The person that ran back into the house, to get his pets, was treated for minor smoke inhalation but did get the pets out of the house successfully.
The home is owned by Amy Vaughn Garrett, and Red Cross has been assisting the family.
The 9-1-1 dispatch operates under the office of the Jackson County Sheriff.
“We could have asked some additional questions,” said Sheriff Steve Rand in a telephone interview, but added that the job can be tricky. “When it comes to trusting what someone says regarding what township or town they are in . . . they are, historically, often inaccurate.”
As an example, Rand noted that the department often gets calls from Vandercook Lake area, and the caller will state that he is in Jackson, which shares a common zip code, much like Brooklyn and Norvell.
In the Case Road fire, “the staff could have asked more probing questions,” he said, “but there is always potential for error.”
“We have got to do better.”
The increased use of cell phones can add another dimension of confusion to the issue. While land-lines provide a correct address, more and more people only use cell phones, such as this case. If the GPS locator on the phone is turned off, the phones can be “pinged” for a location, but, again, that can take a little time and adds one more element to an often chaotic situation.
Rand said minimizing duplicate addresses needs to be a priority.This is not the first time that duplicate addresses have caused problems in Jackson County. In 2007, Ralph and Bernice Davis were killed in a Napoleon Township house explosion after responders to a 9-1-1 call were sent to the wrong street in Jackson. “I remember that case vividly,” recalled Rand. “Thankfully, no one was hurt [badly] in this case.”
When asked about the dispatch process, and if 9-1-1 handled the situation properly, Cota was diplomatic.
“I wasn’t there. It is a very stressful job,” said Cota, though he did request the 9-1-1 tapes to try and discern what happened.
“You have to understand that people are really panicked in that situation, and the dispatcher, her mind is on protocol. She is trying to determine, one, where you are, and two, is everyone out of the house,” said Cota.
“These dispatchers hear these high-stress calls all the time,” he said. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time they do a fabulous job for us. But this happens. These things happen. The point is, let’s correct this so it doesn’t happen again.”
In all, it took Cota 19 minutes to arrive on the scene.
“We were very frustrated,” admitted the chief. “We went down this road years ago,” he said, noting that there have been similar cases and that there are many duplicate roads such as “Lake View” and “Main Street” throughout the county.
“It is a problem everywhere,” said the chief. He noted that he has been working with Scott Ambs from the county GIS service on specific problems in his coverage area of the county.