Repeated calls cited in loss of woman's home to fire 'Vital' time lost

she shouldn't have redialed, officials say

January 12, 1996|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,SUN STAFF

If you call 911 and get a recording, don't hang up. Geneva Joyner heard the tape as her Jessup house burned -- and each time she hung up and redialed, she was sent to the back of the line of calls. Before help could arrive, her home was destroyed.

"It's just unbelievable," Ms. Joyner said of the Dec. 13 electrical fire that roared through her home in the 8700 block of Mary Lane. "They always tell people if something happens call 911. If you call, they're supposed to answer. I felt helpless because I couldn't talk to anybody."

The 911 lines get clogged with emergency calls no more than twice each week, said John Hampton, head of the Howard County Bureau of Communications. When that happens, callers hear, "You've reached 911. All operators are busy. Please stay on the line for the next available operator."

Ms. Joyner heard the recording when she first called 911 at 5:08 p.m. She was able to talk to an operator about 90 seconds later, records show. Firefighters arrived at 5:16 p.m.

During that short time, Ms. Joyner watched from her neighbor's window as her house, her car and all of her property burned. Fire officials said they might have been able to prevent the destruction of the home if they had been notified sooner.

"Minutes can be vital," said Lt. Sean Kelly, a spokesman for the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue. "Minutes can be the difference between a completely total loss and a reasonably salvable operation."

Mr. Hampton said Ms. Joyner was partly at fault. Her call would have been taken sooner if she had stayed on the line as the recording urged, he said.

"It's not what people want to hear when they have a problem, but when she hung up, it put her at the end of the line," Mr. Hampton said. "She had to then start over again, and they [911 operators] were busy. If she had stayed on, she would have got one."

About 16,000 police, fire and ambulance calls are handled each month by 911 operators in the basement of the George Howard Building in Ellicott City. The operators work 12-hour shifts, usually with three or four on duty.

On Dec. 13, the day of the Joyner fire, the 911 system dealt with 320 calls. During the 12-hour shift when Ms. Joyner called, four operators were on duty.

About 5 p.m. that day, Ms. Joyner was outside her home using a cordless phone that suddenly stopped working. She went inside, saw a flame over a new halogen lamp in her basement and helped her 85-year-old mother, 80-year-old aunt and 64-year-old brother get out.

She then ran to a neighbor's house, where the neighbor told her the 911 line was busy. Ms. Joyner said she tried to call three more times herself but couldn't get through. Finally, she called the phone company operator and was connected to the 911 operator.

Communications officials said their line is never busy -- overflow callers get the recording -- and that they could identify only two calls from Ms. Joyner and one from the operator. They listed the first call at 5:08:42 p.m. and a second at 5:09:05 p.m.

Mr. Hampton said records show an operator had been assigned to handle Ms. Joyner's second call, the one recorded at 5:09 p.m. But Ms. Joyner again hung up and called the telephone operator, who reached a 911 operator at 5:09:52 p.m. A fire dispatcher alerted firefighters at 5:11 p.m.

When firefighters arrived at Ms. Joyner's home at 5:16 p.m., they saw heavy smoke. They entered and poured water on the basement. But, out of concern for their safety, the firefighters withdrew when the fire spread rapidly and began fighting it from outside, Lieutenant Kelly said.

Minutes later, "the place was lit up like Christmas," Ms. Joyner said. Her 1994 Chevrolet Corsica, which was parked next to her house, and the Christmas presents inside it were ablaze. The only items not destroyed were two Bibles, which were burned only around the edges.

"The firemen did a good job when they got there," she said. "The problem was getting them there. The firemen can't come unless they get the call."

Her family filed a complaint with the Howard County Fire Department about the 911 delay two days after the fire. A Dec. 26 memorandum to County Exeuctive Charles I. Ecker from the Department of General Services, which supervises the 911 operation, said that Ms. Joyner's second call was scheduled to be answered 40 seconds after she hung up.

Ms. Joyner, 47, said the county needs to inform the public about the recording. "If I had known, I wouldn't have panicked," she said on a recent morning as she looked at the charred ruins of her home.

More than two weeks after the incident -- and after inquiries by The Sun -- county officials issued a news release warning people not to hang up or panic when they hear a 911 recording.

"We feel it's better callers hear something indicating they called the right number instead of nothing being said or done," Mr. Hampton said.

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