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Weekend storm deaths again highlight problems with St. Louis’ 911 system

The site where a woman died after a tree fell on her car during violent storms last weekend on Wednesday, July 5, 2023, in an alley behind the 4100 block of Chouteau Avenue in The Grove.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The site Wednesday where a woman died after a tree fell on her car during violent storms last weekend in an alley behind the 4100 block of Chouteau Avenue in the Grove.

The spotlight is again on St. Louis’ beleaguered 911 system after the deaths of two people during severe thunderstorms over the weekend.

Katherine Coen, 33, died Saturday after a tree fell on her car in the city’s Grove neighborhood. In Jennings, a 5-year-old boy, Robert Lawrence, died when a tree fell onto his family’s house. In both cases multiple calls to 911 went unanswered. The responses are now being investigated.

In St. Louis, the Department of Public Safety said in a statement released Wednesday that EMS dispatchers first answered a call about Coen at 3:57 p.m. Police dispatchers took their first call at 4:14 p.m. Fire dispatchers first answered a call at 4:16 p.m., and a crew arrived on scene about 10 minutes after being dispatched.

It was not clear how long people had waited to have those calls answered.

Dispatchers in the city handled more than a thousand calls during the height of the storm, said Charles Coyle, interim director of public safety. Between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. on the same day last year, they handled fewer than 500.

“So that did tax our dispatchers and our responders a great deal,” he said. “What takes place when you get that many calls, they begin to stack up.”

Coyle said the department continues to investigate the timeline of the response to Coen’s death. He said anyone who called 911 to report the incident should give their number to public safety officials.

“We can actually track those calls, and that will help, on both ends, determine what took place and why it took place,” he said.

There were 12 dispatchers split among police, fire and EMS working on Saturday, along with an additional four call takers who determine whether a call needs police, fire or EMS. Those staffing numbers are workable, officials said, but not ideal under normal conditions, and the city doesn’t have enough people to boost staffing. EMS dispatch has just eight positions filled out of 44, and two of those dispatchers are training. Police dispatch, which initially handles almost all 911 calls, is at 60% staffing.

“But no matter where our capacity was on July 1, 2023, that was too many calls for us to think that we could handle each one of them,” Coyle said.

The city wants to train dispatchers to be able to handle calls of all types, Coyle said, but the understaffing makes that impossible. He hopes a pay raise that took effect with the fiscal 2024 budget will help with recruitment.

The city also plans to build a centralized 911 dispatch facility known as a public safety answering point. Officials had hoped to get $20 million from the state, but Gov. Mike Parson reduced that to $10 million in vetoes announced late last week.

Parson said the veto was necessary to “help ensure the financial stability of Missouri beyond my administration and the current General Assembly.” He did not explain why he eliminated that funding specifically as opposed to other projects.

Death of Robert Lawrence

The St. Louis County police department said its dispatchers first received a call from the home of 5-year-old Robert Lawrence on Hamilton Avenue at 3:42 p.m. Saturday. Adrian Washington, a department public information officer, said the caller spent 13 minutes on the line waiting for an answer. When a call taker answered, the caller hung up almost simultaneously, triggering an automatic callback.

A woman answered that call, Washington said, and spoke to the call taker for about three minutes. At the same time, a county police officer assigned to the Jennings precinct put out a call on the radio system. Officers responded around 3:55 p.m.

Keith Goldstein, chief of North County Fire and Rescue, said his department dispatched emergency responders around the same time police arrived on scene, but did not know how long it took them to arrive. He said police and fire departments are trying to determine the cause of the delay.

Both Coyle and Washington urged people who call 911 to remain on the line, regardless of wait times.

“If someone hangs up and then calls back, their call will not only tie up multiple dispatchers, their call is placed at the end of the queue,” Washington said.

State of 911 in the region

The weekend deaths illustrate the problems with the region’sfragmented 911 system, said Jia Lian Yang, communications director for Forward Through Ferguson, which commissioned a report on 911 last year.

911 in St. Louis performs below national standards. Here’s why

“In St. Louis, we don't have as many options as far as what dispatchers can do when they're triaging situations,” they said. “And so one of those results is that it's inefficient, and dispatchers aren't able to respond as quickly to resident needs.”

That puts even more stress on dispatchers, who are already working a job with high rates of PTSD.

“We think by increasing their pay, hiring more dispatchers, improving their workplace conditions and also classifying them as first responders, those are all steps that we can take to retain the dispatchers that we have,” Yang said.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.