Local 2 Investigates: 911 operators hanging up on callers

By Jace Larson - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Local 2 Investigates has discovered 911 operators hanging up on callers.

"She just hung up. There was no click. There was no goodbye. It was just, 'Call us back if it gets worse,'" Holly Scheuer told Local 2 after she called during her husband's heart attack. "I called 911 back and I'm screaming, 'She hung up on me.'"

Scheuer contacted Local 2 Investigates.

City policy says 911 call takers should remain on the line with the caller until emergency responders arrive if one of three conditions is met:

1)    Medical instructions are being provided, such as CPR or childbirth procedures.
2)    There are concerns that the patient's condition may worsen before emergency responders arrive on scene. The policy lists examples such as a patient has difficulty breathing or someone has difficulty maintaining consciousness.
3)    Anytime they feel it would be in the patient's benefit to do so.

Scheuer's 911 calls, obtained by Local 2 Investigates through the state's open records laws, has her frantic voice, screaming at times, saying her husband is barely conscious, is spitting up and is not breathing properly.

After telling Scheuer help was on the way, the 911 operator disconnected the call.

The operator did not ask detailed questions about Scheuer's husband's condition or walk her through performing CPR.

There was no warning, Scheuer says, that she was going to be disconnected. The call recording shows there was no explanation that the operator was going to hang up.

After realizing the operator hung up, Scheuer called 911 back.

A second 911 operator told her to start CPR and the call recorded Scheuer counting out loud the number of compressions she was performing.

Scheuer's husband, Richard Scheuer, did not survive.

911 Spokesman Joe Laud reviewed the call with the Houston Fire Department, who creates operators' medical call policies.

Both the 911 call center and HFD determined the 911 operator who disconnected the call handled the case according to policy.

"Technically all the calls were handled properly," Laud said.

Though Local 2 investigative reporter Jace Larson asked him to explain how the call followed policy, he declined to do so. Laud repeatedly said 911 management and HFD found there was no policy violation.

"We do understand there are lessons to be learned on this which we will implement in our future and current call handling process," Laud said.

However, he said policy changes are still under consideration.
He said policymakers are considering asking call takers to explain that help is on the way and then explain that they will be disconnecting the call, before the call taker hangs up. Local 2 first brought this case to Houston Emergency Center's managers in December.

"It's still in discussion," he said.

Local 2 discovered more than 100 911 callers have been hung up on, according personnel records reviewed.

In 2011, an employee was disciplined after an internal complaint claimed she hung up on 94 calls. Another complaint against a different employee claimed a male 911 operator hung up on 14 calls.

Scheuer says she hopes someone takes a look at the policy.

"Something needs to change. They can't know in their hearts that she handled it correctly." she said. "This shouldn't happen to someone else."

Have a tip for investigative reporter Jace Larson? Email him at jlarson@kprc.com or following him on Twitter or Facebook.

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