It should not be surprising that calls to 911 do not always result in the proper response. The first 911 call was made in 1968 in Haleyville, Ala., but it wasn't until 1999 that Congress directed that "911" be the official emergency telephone number within the United States.
Nearly the entire United States is now served by some form of an emergency dispatch center. The proliferation of cellular phones means that 911 centers no longer receive a single call for help as in years past, but oftentimes dozens of calls involving the same incident. According to Kentucky's Commercial Mobile Radio Service Board, wireless calls to 911 centers now far exceed those made from traditional telephones.
Deficient responses to 911 calls vary widely. A caller's request for an ambulance due to a sever headache was rebuffed-the 911 operator suggested instead that the victim
take an aspirin-and the victim suffered a stroke and ultimately died. A gunshot victim begs for help for 48 minutes in a recorded 911 call. Dispatchers ignore the address provided by the victim, choosing instead to send police to an incorrect address gleaned from a faulty computer system.
Just this week, it was disclosed that dispatchers for the California Highway Patrol ignored as many as five 911 calls reporting a forest fire on the rim of Lake Tahoe.
That fire ultimately destroyed 254 homes and burned 3,100 acres of mountainous terrain surrounding the lake.
Society has taught us to rely on 911 for nearly every critical situation. Hickman writes, "[v]irtually all emergency vehicles carry signs advertising the 911 service, telephone directories direct callers to 911 for emergency assistance, children are taught in
chool to call 911, and many communities have signs posted on streets that advise passers-by that they are entering a 911 community." Yet courts routinely reject this reliance as a basis to impose liability when 911 does not deliver upon the promise to
help. Victims often assert that the statutory duty to operate a 911 center imposes a duty upon that governmental entity to properly respond to calls for assistance. And when they don't, they should have to pay for that negligence.
Courts generally focus on the nature of the "duty" imposed by statute. If the duty is owed only to the general public, courts generally hold that the emergency centers are immune from suit. If, however, the court determines that the statutes authorizing the 911 center create a "special duty" between the victim caller and the dispatch center, then the 911 center must perform in a non-negligent (i.e., "reasonable") manner.
We are fortunate in this area to be served by competent and well trained emergency professionals. Perhaps that is why in Kentucky, no published court decision expressly sets forth the duties of a 911 center. Legalities aside, we all want to know that our "lifeline" is always ready. Hopefully, our courts will never be called upon to decide such a heartrending issue.