November 08, 2012
On Tuesday of last week, at about 8:30 p.m., I was talking to my mother on the phone. My mom, who's 76 years old and lives alone in Chapel Hill, was at home that night and was telling me that she was going to come into Greensboro the next day. Suddenly, she stopped in mid-sentence and, in a gut-wrenching voice, she screamed, "Noooo!" and then there was a very loud crashing sound. It sounded like glass breaking and it was followed by complete silence.
I could tell the phone line was still open, but there was no sound coming from her end.
"Mom!" I called into the phone. "Mom! Can you hear me?"
I listened for a few seconds to see if I could hear anything. I couldn't.
"Mom!" I said again. "Mom!"
I continued to listen but I heard nothing but silence.
I sat there, getting more and more worried as various nightmare scenarios ran through my mind.
I hung up and called 911.
The operator for Greensboro's 911 system identified herself and said: "What is the location of your emergency."
"The emergency is in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I'm calling for my mother. I was on the phone with her; she screamed out the word no, and there was a crashing sound and then no response from her." I gave the address.
"What county is that?" she asked.
My mother lives right on the line of Orange County and Durham County, and, for some services, she uses Orange County, while, for others, it's Durham County. I had just helped her get an absentee ballot and, after calling Orange County to get that, they had referred me to Durham County.
"I think it's Durham County," I said.
"I'm transferring you now," the operator said.
The phone rang at Durham County's 911 center.
Then it rang again.
The phone rang a third time.
A woman picked up and she said something I couldn't understand.
"Is this Durham County 911?" I asked, somewhat frantic by this point.
"Yes," she said.
"I have an emergency at [my mother's address] in Chapel Hill. I was on the phone with my mother, she screamed out the word no, and there was a crashing sound followed by no response."
I repeated the address to make sure she had understood it correctly.
"What is your phone number?" she asked.
I said my phone number clearly.
The woman read it back to me to make sure she had taken it down correctly. The number she read back was wrong by at least two digits.
"No," I said, highly frustrated, very worried about every passing second. I gave her my phone number again, and she read it back to me a second time and, this time, she got it right.
Then she began to ask me a series of questions. I can't remember all of them, but they were questions like, "Does she live alone?" "What's her phone number?" and so on.
I remember one time I'd heard an emergency management official tell a group that, "When you hear 911 tapes, and the operator is asking a lot of questions and it seems like he or she should have dispatched someone, what a lot of people don't realize is that often they've already dispatched someone to the scene."
I wanted to make sure that was happening in this case, so I interrupted her string of questions.
"Have you sent someone yet?" I asked.
"Well, you need to send someone now!"
I gave her the address again.
She said something like that she was trying to discern the nature of the event so she would know whether to send medical or law enforcement.
I'm being honest when I say that I didn't shout at her at this point, but I did say the following as sternly as anyone can say anything without shouting it.
"We don't know what happened. She was on the phone. She screamed 'No.' There was a loud crash. Maybe someone broke in; maybe a cabinet fell on her and she's
bleeding to death. We don't know what happened. I don't care who you send – just send someone."
It reminded me of every time on television were you hear the 911 calls of people in an emergency and the operator is asking a lot of questions and you're just practically screaming at the television, "Lady, just send someone!"
I think the woman told me the response was going to come from Orange County 911. She said something like that.
She said someone was being sent out. Then she was getting ready to hang up.
"Wait," I said. "Who can I call to find out something when they get there?" She gave me a number for a Durham 911 supervisor, and she said he could give me some information if I called back later.
I had been standing and pacing the whole time, and now I sat down and began to panic as various scenarios ran through my head.
About five minutes after I hung up with the 911 operator, my phone rang.
It was my mother.
I can't tell you what she said at first, but the important thing was that it was my mother and she was alive and seemed to be OK.
She said she had fallen, and she said that, on the way down, she had grabbed a shelf for balance, but, instead of the shelf holding her up, it had come down with everything on it. She said her phone was knocked out of the room into the kitchen and she couldn't find it after she recovered from the fall.
I told her I had called 911 and I asked if they had arrived yet. She said they had not.
I said I was surprised they weren't there already, and my mother said she was too.
She said she was OK, and she told me she was going to call 911 back and tell them they didn't need to come. She said she would call me after she called them.
A few minutes later, my mother called back. She told me that, when she called 911 to tell them not to come, the woman on the other end of the line said she would take care of it. My mother said the woman – who she thought was with Orange County 911 – told her that any call to that address would come through there, and she added that no call for my mother's address had come through yet, so my mother didn't have to worry about 911 showing up. The operator said that, when the call got to her, she would let them know there was no reason to send anyone out.
But the truth is that it didn't really matter at that point if they sent someone out or not, because, if it had been a serious emergency, by the time they got there, my mother in all likelihood would have been dead.
I called Durham 911 later that night and I asked them what had happened. They said they had a record of the call, and that they had later sent out a "cancel dispatch" notification so the dispatch was cancelled.
This wasn't my mother's first experience with 911. A few years ago, while playing tennis at the Chapel Hill Country Club, she fell and broke her arm. They had called 911 and my mother said that, at that time, it took about 30 minutes for EMS to get there.
One of the responders explained to her that they had gotten lost. He told my mother, when he saw it was a broken arm: "That's a relief – I was worried it was a heart attack. I'm sure glad it wasn't."
And my mother said she was thinking: Well, me too.
What's really frightening is that this was the Chapel Hill Country Club, which is about as well known and obvious a landmark as they come. It wasn't like it was an unmarked backwoods cabin on a dirt road....continued on page 2