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Fire Raises Resident Concerns About 911 System

By Katie Pyzyk

Tuesday - 5/21/2013, 3:50pm  ET

House fire in Lyon ParkSome Lyon Park residents have expressed concern about Arlington’s 911 system after waiting on hold while calling in last Wednesday’s house fire on N. Highland Street. Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management, however, says everything worked just as it was supposed to.

Some callers reported hearing a recorded message while they were put on hold for several minutes, according to an ARLnow.com tipster. OEM Director Jack Brown confirmed that there were callers who heard a message asking them to stay on the line while the system was flooded with calls. Anyone who hung up was then called back to verify that they were safe and to check if they still needed emergency assistance, exactly like any other 911 hang up.

“It’s not an overburden for us, it’s just very busy in the initial stages of an emergency,” said Emergency Communications Center Commander John Crawford. “The system was working and the people were working. The only issue we get is when lots of people call all at once.”

Crawford explained that Arlington’s 911 call center has a minimum of 10 people staffing it at all times. Typically, calls immediately go through to a staffer. But when an emergency occurs, such as during the Lyon Park fire, there are so many calls that each one cannot be answered immediately.

“The phones just literally lit up. We knew it was something significant,” Crawford said. “If 10 people call 911, the eleventh person is going to get a pre-recorded message asking them to hold. We purposely put that recording in there because in years past the phone would just ring and ring, and people would question if they called the right number.”

The automatic call distribution system immediately sends holding callers to the first available staff member as soon as a line frees up. Once information is gathered from the first couple of callers, the rest of the calls typically move more quickly. Staffers make every effort to gather information from each caller as rapidly as possible to avoid missing an emergency.

“You never know, that eleventh call or twelfth call might be someone in a horrific accident on G.W. Parkway not related to the fire, so we have to go through every call as quickly as possible,” said Crawford. “I have to talk to you but I don’t have to talk to you long. To some people it may sound rude, but I need to cut to the chase and get the info I need and then hang up the phone.”

Arlington County 911 dispatch centerCrawford noted that Arlington’s 911 call center received significant upgrades five years ago, including expanding the number of phone lines from 16 to 48. Improvements have been made to prevent the system from “locking up” as it did during the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.

“On 9/11, the phones rang and lit up so quick that it locked the system up. Literally hundreds. We couldn’t even get to them,” said Crawford.

9/11 also put into play the rare “code red” alert that gets sent out to staff pagers and phones, ordering them back to work to help with a large emergency. With the additional lines that have been added since that time, the center could now have 48 call takers working at the same time — one for each phone line.

“Thank God, other than a couple of disasters I know of, we haven’t had need to upstaff to that degree,” said Crawford.

Arlington’s 911 center does add extra staff members during anticipated busy times, such as weekend nights and planned events like races. However, on the average day, the 10 or so call takers need to deal with any incidents that arise.

Crawford noted that it’s important for people to continue to call when they see or hear something occur because you never know if another person will call or not. He asks residents to be patient if they’re put on hold during a flood of calls, and promises the call takers are doing the best they can.

“We work for the citizens, those are our customers,” Crawford said. “We try to provide the best possible customer service to them.”