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9-1-1 to Nowhere

Time for a round of Emergency Roulette.


He was rather demanding, as far as houseguests go -- especially the kind who don't get past the front door. In the last hour, he'd been ringing the doorbell incessantly, requesting coffee, use of the phone, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and kippers, sardines, and tuna. Before he could work up a taste for pickled herring, I informed him we had no canned fish.

"Can I use your bathroom?" he pleaded. Damn. I shoulda known three cups of coffee would do that.

Even more naively, I'd expected a response from Cleveland's finest when I called 9-1-1 with an emergency that didn't involve somebody bleeding buckets on the linoleum. It did involve a marginally coherent stranger who said he'd escaped from a psych ward.

Surely I could handle this situation myself. Maybe invite him in for some scones and catatonic conversation, something to take the edge off those minus-30 wind chills.

Me: "Nope, sorry, I'm not letting you in the house."

Him: "Please, I really have to go bad."

Me: "No." He seemed nice enough. If I hadn't been home alone and he hadn't been taking an antipsychotic drug called Haldol, I might've even let him use the can.

While his bladder was contorting and his hands turning ever-deepening shades of crimson, we exchanged pleasantries through the crack in the door. His name was Dan, and he was schizophrenic and bipolar. Dan lived in a mental hospital by a Burger King and a Pepsi plant, called something he couldn't remember, on a street whose name escaped him.

Unfortunately, such friendly overtures couldn't change the immediacy of the situation, which Dan began conveying by whaling on the front door.

The minutes spent awaiting the cops seemed like hours. And eventually, they were. Four 9-1-1 calls and 80 minutes later, help arrived. Not a stellar performance.

Here's a choice excerpt from my 9-1-1 diary, transcribed from a Police Department tape:

Me: "There's a man out here. He came to my door. He's lost. He says he came from a mental hospital."

Dispatcher: (Sounding bored) "What color coat is he wearing?"

Me: "A parka."

D: "What color?"

Me: "It's like a greenish-gray color."

D: "Greenish-Gray?"

Me: "Yeah, like a khaki."

D: (laughs and sighs) "Olive color?"

Me: "Yeah, like a regular parka color."

D: "No, that's o-live. That's a color. Olive."

Thank God we cleared up that crucial fashion question. No need to assess the actual danger of the situation with a series of pointed inquiries, like "Is he threatening you?" or the ever-popular "How is he acting?"

After three more futile 9-1-1 calls, I tried the County Mental Health Board, where a supervisor suggested I dial 9-1-1 again, but ask for EMS. "It's cold out there," she observed. "Just last week, a man in that condition wandered around outside and froze to death. They should know better."

EMS promptly dispatched an ambulance. Which was good, because the police never materialized, and boy did Dan have to take a whiz.

Unhappy with police response time, I wondered if my situation was typical. What can Clevelanders expect from 9-1-1? Will cops arrive, or should I be more frugal with the coffee?

According to Police Chief Martin Flask, who reviewed my calls, police should have shown up within 20 minutes, plus a little extra time for bad weather. But two of the calls were mishandled by 9-1-1 operators.

In one case, the operator showed a "lack of courtesy," Flask says. The second operator mislabeled the call. It was assigned a Priority 3 (average response time: one hour). However, it should've been Priority 2 (average response time: 20 minutes), because it involved a mentally ill, possibly violent person.

Briefly, Flask reviewed the average response times. Somebody waving a gun at you? That's a Priority 1, and you can expect police response in about seven minutes. Fights in progress, purse snatchings, and bomb threats rate a 20-minute response. Witness drug activity in your neighborhood? That's Priority 3; expect police within an hour. Finally, reports of stolen automobiles rate a Priority 4, with a two-hour response time.

Last year, 20 of Cleveland's 114 police dispatchers were disciplined for either being discourteous or assigning the wrong priority to a call. Their discipline ranged from retraining to suspension.

"Quite honestly, we don't handle every call professionally and courteously," confesses Flask, noting that there were probably more than 20 mishandled calls last year, but people don't know who to complain to. (Call either 9-1-1 or 216-621-1234 and ask for a supervisor.)

Citizens can also request copies of their 9-1-1 tapes. But be persistent: When I first requested a tape, one call was omitted, so I had to go through the rigmarole twice.

Cleveland's 9-1-1 system takes about 2 million calls a year, says Flask. That's about four per resident. About 600,000 of those are dispatched; others are repeated calls made about the same incident. Then there are the yahoos who tie up the line, wanting baseball scores, the correct time, or the number for Domino's Pizza.

Dispatchers aren't paid handsomely, but they make enough to be polite ($28,000 to $35,000), says Flask. "It is at times stressful. But it's a hell of a lot less stressful than an officer walking down a dark alley. The only thing we ask is that they be courteous and professional. So I have very little tolerance for those who can't or won't be." In other words, good manners are parka for the course.

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