CREST HAVEN – As reported in the Herald's recent series on the county’s new central 911 dispatch system, the success or failure of that system will be determined by concerned residents like Tom Henry of Seaville who encountered a critical 911 problem last year that he wants everyone to know.
Based on his personal experience, Henry understands that consolidation of 911 emergency dispatch not only improves service but also saves taxpayers' money.
Meanwhile, elected officials in many Cape May County municipalities maintain a “wait-and-see” attitude; some want to see the system in operation for a while before they commit to the change.
There are recent local and national examples of communications failures that might help local leaders arrive at a decision to modernize.
The Herald series outlined the human as well as the financial impact that individual “stovepipe” dispatch systems have on our daily lives.
One common 911 communication failure is caused by the need to relay critical information to the proper first responders (from one stovepipe to another) when communities that do not participate in a central system operate in proximity to those who are part of the system.
Delays and errors caused by relaying information between dispatch stovepipes results in lost time; time that can sometimes be measured in loss of life.
This lack of coordination between separate dispatch systems became tragic during the Feb. 14 mass shooting incident at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School in Parkland, Fla.
Parkland, Fla. Experience
Soon after the Parkland mass school shooting in Broward County, CNN reported that “confusion among agencies” responding to the Parkland shooting that took the lives of 17 was a contributing factor to the loss of life.
According to a story in the Miami Herald, Parkland is, by contract, protected by the Broward Regional Communications Center. In this case, the 911 cellphone calls made from inside the school pleading for help were instead routed to Coral Springs, a community that chose not to participate in the Broward County Communications system.
As information from the victims inside the school was reported to Coral Springs, Coral Springs dispatchers had to relay that information, verbally, to the Broward Regional Center.
At some point during this exchange between dispatchers from two separate systems, critical details about the exact location of the shooter inside the school complex were lost.
As was later learned, that communication failure delayed response to the site of the threat inside the large school complex that led to additional loss of life.
According to the Miami Herald, “In explaining why Coral Springs chose not to join in when Broward formed its regional system in 2014, representatives of the police and fire departments said the city was concerned about losing autonomy and a 'hometown feel,' as well as having reservations about the potential organizational structure.”
Although Parkland is a high profile example of how fractured emergency communications systems can lead to tragedy, the community need look no further than Cape May County to see parallels in the current patchwork model used in the county's communities.
Henry’s County Experience
Thomas "Tom" Henry, 78, of Seaville suffered two frightening experiences within minutes of each other in March 2017.
The first experience began when he was alone in his bedroom and suddenly felt himself falling to the floor; he was dazed and disoriented and unsure what was happening to him. He managed to make it out of his bedroom into the living room and asked his wife to call 911; he knew something was terribly wrong.
Henry’s second frightening experience was the realization that when they called 911, no one responded.
According to Henry, it took over 50 minutes for an ambulance to find his house because the 911 call that his wife placed was routed to the dispatch for Ocean View, not Ocean City, which serves his area.
That confusion and delay led Henry’s son to drive around the Route 9 area in search of the lost ambulance; his family could hear the dispatcher trying to direct the emergency medical technicians (EMTs) to the proper community in the background of their 911 call.
The lost EMT finally arrived and transported him to Cape Regional Hospital where it was determined that he had a stroke.
Henry survived his stroke, but according to him, a 50-minute response time for critical medical or police response is unacceptable, especially when a new system is in place that could eliminate such problems. “The people need to know about this (situation),” he concluded.