When Memphian Donna Campbell returned home from dinner with her son and his girlfriend several weeks ago, she was greeted by a man with a gun.
Campbell had just unlocked her front door and disarmed the house alarm when she turned and noticed her son's girlfriend standing on the porch with a gun to her chin. Campbell tried to press the panic button on the alarm but couldn't remember which one it was. The robber demanded their purses and wallets, and when they gave them to him, he ran away.
Campbell then called 911 and was put on hold. Her son's girlfriend also called 911 and was put on hold.
"After being on hold for so long, I went back in the house and made sure I punched the panic button [on the alarm]," she says. A few minutes later, when three squad cars arrived, the two 911 calls were still unanswered.
Stalled 911 calls are a growing problem, and last week, a City Council committee discussed ways to improve the current 911 system.
"[Local 911 officials] gave us a list of different kinds of calls and how many they got," said Carol Chumney, chair of the council's public safety committee. "There were thousands of hang-ups. Plus, people are calling about their dogs running loose and all kinds of things that have nothing to do with a life-threatening emergency situation."
Chumney says a campaign is in the works to inform the public of appropriate reasons to call 911.
Also, Chumney says the computer software Memphis uses does not allow operators to put a non-emergency call on hold so they can answer a life-threatening one. Nashville's system does, and it would cost between $100,000 and $300,000 for Memphis to upgrade the system.
The 911 call center receives an average of 1,200 calls per day. A new call center near the Shelby County Correctional Center should be completed by 2008, and Vince Higgins, public affairs officer for the Memphis Police Department, says it will have additional lines. There are currently 18 lines for 911 calls.
Higgins says non-emergency calls are a problem, but the system also becomes overloaded when too many people report the same emergency.
"In 1985, when there was an accident on I-240 at Lamar, one person would get out of the car, walk to a phone, and call police," said Higgins. "Now, at the same location, you might have up to 15 cell phones calling 911. That immediately overloads the system."
Higgins suggests people stop to render aid and determine if the accident is an actual emergency before calling. He also says it's important that people stay on the line after being put on hold.
"If you get off the line, that means someone has to turn around and call you back. That becomes a priority call," said Higgins. "We have to make sure it's not a dire emergency. If we don't get an answer, we have to send someone to the location and that creates more of a problem. So stay on the line."