Callers Dial 911 for Help -- and Get Questions - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NC5 Investigates: 911 Emergency

Callers Dial 911 for Help -- and Get Questions


If you ever faced a life-or-death medical emergency, you'd hope that help is just a phone call away.

But a NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered a 911 emergency for some callers, who got more questions than answers.

In Metro's 911 center, it began in January 2006 with a frantic call for help.

"We need an ambulance to 3939 Apache Trail," a screaming female told the 911 operator.

"I think she's dead. I think she's dead," she continued.

It was a girl's emotional plea for an ambulance -- all for her 19-year-old sister, Ayla Harmon.

"I was just scared," Ayla's sister, Aneia Harmon, tells NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter, Phil Williams.

Alya Harmon recalls, "The doctor said if I didn't get to the hospital I would have died."

But instead of dispatchers sending rescuers racing into action, an ambulance rushing to the scene.

For this family, help never came.

"An ambulance never came to my house, never came to pick up my daughter," Ayla's mother, Donna Harmon, remembers.

It's the result of 911 system that critics say puts life-or-death medical decisions -- about whether to send ambulances and how quickly -- in the hands of sometimes-inexperienced call takers working off of checklists.

"Out of the 2.9 million calls that we did last year, .001 percent was our error rate on these calls -- and that's not too bad," 911 boss RoxAnn Brown tells Phil Williams.

Donna Harmon says, "We're not looking at my daughter as being a statistic. We're looking at my daughter as being a human being and a life that needed help then."

In the Harmon case, a male friend got on the phone and asked the operator, "What am I supposed to do? She can't breathe."

For an agonizing nine minutes, the 911 operator insisted on working through her checklist... instead of just getting rescuers on their way.

911: "Does she know what's going on?
Caller: "She's moving her legs a little bit, but she ain't talking. Her tongue is sticking out of her mouth."
911: "OK, so she's not conscious."
Caller: "Ma'am. Can't we just get some help?"

"The whole time we were on the phone when she wasn't breathing, we were waiting on the ambulance," Aneia Harmon says.

But instead of sending an ambulance, Donna Harmon says "they sent police instead to arrest my daughter, my friend for domestic violence."

"The person sounded very upset," RoxAnn Brown says. "So we couldn't tell why they were distraught. So we started the police department, yes."

Donna Harmon responds, "She's not breathing. That was the key words. She is not breathing."

Then, there's a call from inside the Summit Outpatient Center. An elderly man's heart had suddenly slipped into an erractic beat known as "V tach."

"It's easy to sit here and pick one out of the 2.9 million calls, which is what you are doing," Brown tells Williams.

But, on the 911 tape, the caller tells the operator: "I didn't realize you had to answer a thousand questions."

In that case, the call taker refused to send an ambulance until her questions were resolved -- despite the insistence of a doctor.

Doctor: "Is somebody moving in the meantime?"
911: "No, I haven't got the call in."
Doctor: "This man has had two runs of V tach."
911: "I understand, sir. This is our policy."

RoxAnn Brown says, "Mr. Williams, this call should have been done differently, should have been done better. We know that."

But the most disturbing may be a call from a pediatrics clinic. A nurse told the 911 operator that doctors were performing CPR on a 13-day-old baby, trying to save its life, and they needed an ambulance fast.

"The baby is not breathing, ma'am," the nurse told her.

But before sending an ambulance, the call taker insisted they had to go through her checklist first.

911: "Are you doing CPR on him?"
Caller: "They are, ma'am. I'm on the phone with you. They are doing CPR on the baby. Can you all just get a bus here?"
911: "These are questions that have to be answered, OK."

"Again, let's go back to the total figure here. We're talking about 2.9 million calls," Brown tells Phil Williams.

"Let's talk about this 13-day-old baby," Williams insists.

"I understand Mr. Williams. We have 184 employees who work very hard to do a terrific job for the citizens of Nashville."

"But not for this baby."

"It's a difficult job."

Donna Harmon says, regardless of statistics, "My daughter almost died."

In the Harmon's case, relatives finally drove Ayla to the hospital themselves.

"We got the girl back breathing," the Harmon's friend told the 911 operator, getting the last word.

"You made a mistake on your job. You need to get better with it. Thank you, ma'am."

Brown says in all three cases, the operators were counseled on how they could have done their job better.

Which isn't much consolation to the people on the other end of the phone.

So the question is are these just isolated mistakes -- or the symptom of a real 911 emergency?

Monday night at 10, you'll hear more 911 calls, as well as a leading critic.

He says the real problem is: the operators just don't have the right training.

If you've had a 911 problem -- or know of anything else we should investigate -- e-mail us at

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