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Writer remembered 911 call incorrectly

May 10, 2012
Editorial by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Publisher Catherine Moore, Managing Editor Peter Crowley

On Tuesday, the Enterprise published a Guest Commentary by Elizabeth Amell which described an emergency 911 call she placed after her son cut his leg on March 23. In the piece, she accused a Franklin County 911 dispatcher of sending the Saranac Lake Volunteer Rescue Squad to the wrong address.

"He asked me a third time for my 911 address and still managed to relay the INCORRECT address to the (Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department) driver," she wrote.

That's not true. The dispatcher sent the rescue squad to the right address. We verified that Wednesday by listening to the county's recordings of her 911 call as well as the dispatcher's call to the Saranac Lake firehouse, and by talking to emergency personnel in Saranac Lake and Malone, some of whom responded to her house.

Other details of her recollection were also proven to be inaccurate.

Ms. Amell listened to the recording after we did and admits she remembered the event wrongly. She told us she is sorry and feels terribly about it.

Therefore, the purpose of this editorial is to set the record straight about what actually happened.

For one thing, the dispatcher did not ask three times for Ms. Amell's address. She gave it to him as soon as he picked up the phone, and he immediately asked her to repeat it - understandable because the injured child was crying in the background. He did not ask her to repeat it again.

Furthermore, we can confidently say that the following recollection Ms. Amell wrote in her Guest Commentary did not happen at any time in the 10-minute, 55-second call:

"Here was the dispatcher's response: (insert big sigh) 'What was that address again?' Obviously, I tell him the 911 address a second time. His reply: 'OK, I'm not finding that in my computer, and I'm not too familiar with ... ummmm ... Vermontville? So, where do you live again?'"

We heard no sigh, and the dispatcher did not say anything like those words, or anything else indicating confusion about the location.

One thing he did ask her was if her house on state Route 3 was near Cold Brook Road; that's because, we have been told, the address showed up on his computer as being between Cold Brook and Sinkhole roads. She replied that she wasn't sure because she hadn't lived there very long, but that there is a sign for a parking area in front of her house. (In fact, the state road sign says, "Parking area, 1 mile.") This detail was later relayed over the radio to the rescue squad, and it delayed responders by a few minutes since they first went to the parking area itself, a mile past her house.

Ms. Amell said the ambulance driver told her they would have been there sooner if they hadn't been sent to the wrong location, and that this was the source of her mix-up. When we asked the driver, however, he didn't remember telling her this.

Ms. Amell generalized that the dispatcher handled her 911 call in an "inefficient and unprofessional manner." After listening to the call, we disagree. He was professional, efficient, courteous and patient. He offered to stay on the phone with her until the rescue squad arrived, and he did just that, for which she was grateful.

She also wrote that, based on conversations she had with others in the community, she believes "these types of egregious errors occur multiple times a week." This is untrue.

The Franklin County 911 office in Malone says it and Saranac Lake's fire-rescue dispatch center established a log last year for dispatch mistakes and that there are only two entries in it so far. Two Saranac Lake officials told us that not every problem has been documented since then, but they also insisted things have gotten better over the past year between them and Franklin County 911. Mistakes used to be more numerous, they said.

Here at the Enterprise, we regret publishing Ms. Amell's account without double-checking it. We do fact-check opinion pieces, but as a general standard, we don't usually investigate things writers say happened to them - what they heard, said or experienced - since these are difficult to prove or disprove. Also, interpretation of the facts are fair game for the Opinion page, although incorrect facts are not.

But this standard has its limitations, and it was in applying it to this commentary that our managing editor, Peter Crowley, made a mistake. He forgot that all 911 calls are recorded, meaning this wasn't a typical case of he-said-she-said - it was possible to verify what he and she actually said. Our editor should have been more skeptical.

Ms. Amell should also have been more skeptical of her memory of the incident, especially since she was upset at the time by her son's bleeding leg. We think she truly believed she was right and is now remorseful, but, of course, she should have made sure of her facts before submitting the commentary for publication. We empathize with her, though, having made mistakes in print ourselves. It's painful and humiliating, and she's paying that price.

One last thing: Contrary to the impression left by her commentary, the truth of this matter sheds light on the good work 911 dispatchers do to keep people safe, and it indicates that mistakes, while they do happen, are relatively rare. We would trust Franklin County 911 with our lives, and you should, too.



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