911 Systems In Arkansas Are Decentralized, Underfunded

Sep 21, 2015

Jinglei Yi and her son Le Yang.
Credit Yang family.

Decades-old emergency call systems nationwide are struggling to keep up with technological changes and find funding sources. As Arkansas works to revamp its 911 system, one family is suing the City of Little Rock after help didn’t arrive.

Jinglei Yi, a 39 year-old nurse, was driving her five year-old son, Le Yang, to school on a cold January day in 2013. Her Ford Expedition slid on black ice, veered off the road, and dropped down a hill into a retaining pond east of Rushmore Avenue in Little Rock.

She called 911 on her cell phone. A Little Rock call taker took down her location and told her help was on the way. Li then got a call from Brandi Johnson at the city’s EMS who guided her to unbuckle her seatbelt and open a door or window to climb out.

Yi: Where is the ambulance and the backup people?

EMS: They’re on their way. Are you able to climb out of the car and get on to the roof?

Yi: No, I can’t.

EMS: Ok, are you able to put your child on the roof of the car, through the window?

Yi was on the phone for 13.5 minutes before water rose from beneath her seat, filling the vehicle. An ambulance had set out minutes after her 911 call but got lost.

When the ambulance arrived, Yi’s car was under water. Fire and police rescuers were still needed but EMS learned they had never been contacted by 911.

Yi was pulled out of her vehicle 50 minutes after calling 911; she did not survive. Her son was rescued but it was too late. He passed away this year due to injuries from the accident.

Carter Stein is an attorney representing Yi’s estate. He says Yi’s call taker, Candace Middleton, previously held a 911 job in Benton but lost it for performance issues.

According to Stein, Little Rock shouldn’t have hired her, but the city was desperate for staff.

“Throughout her training it appeared that it was not going well. She had been reprimanded after she had been released from the training program to work on her own,” he said.

Little Rock’s communications center had a 20 percent vacancy rate in 2013 after years of high turnover, according to Stein. Positions there paid $27,000 a year, less than the $42,000 maximum allotted by the city.

According to Scott Perkins with the Arkansas Association of Counties, low wages at Arkansas call centers may be a consequence of asking cash-strapped counties to handle some call centers. He added that retention problems are also rooted in stress.

“Dispatchers have no idea what’s on the other end of that line when it rings. And also understand that one accident might spark 40 calls to a call center. And so you’ve got a very high volume of communications. Some of these communications could be very stressful situations.". 

Beyond staffing and training issues, Stein says that Little Rock’s 911 computer system  has a backlog of unentered addresses.

“The system rejected the address as one not in the city, which meant she had to manually override it and she had to assign the nearest police and fire units. It required her to make additional steps. That should have never happened,” he said.

A group of 911 officials and lawmakers have been trying to address problems with the state’s 911 system. A January report by the state’s Blue Ribbon Committee found a lack of central oversight, varying computer and technology systems, and funding problems related to a decline in landline phone use.

“911 is completely decentralized. There really is not a state entity that is a repository of what’s going on out there,” said David Maxwell, who is on the committee and directs Arkansas’s Department of Emergency Management.

Arkansas established its 911 system in 1985 with state-level responsibility for maintaining funding. According to Maxwell, legislation is needed to restructure funding and oversight. He said the goal is uniform systems statewide that can keep up with texts and videos.

While the Blue Ribbon Committee develops legislative changes for the 2017 session, the City of Little Rock is awaiting a consultant’s report on issues at its 911 call center, due at the end of this month.

City officials have declined to comment on the matter and the death of Yi and her son.