House Burns While 911 Gives Busy Signal: Family

City Councilmember Dwaine Caraway looking into 911 problem

By Ben Russell
|  Wednesday, Jul 4, 2012  |  Updated 10:42 PM CDT
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We are learning more tonight about the response time to a house fire in Dallas on Berwick Avenue. Neighbors say they tried calling 911 but got busy signals for minutes.

Omar Villafranca, NBC 5 News

We are learning more tonight about the response time to a house fire in Dallas on Berwick Avenue. Neighbors say they tried calling 911 but got busy signals for minutes.

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Family Wants Answers After Losing Home to Fire

Neighbors on Berwick Avenue said they called 911 and got a busy signal for minutes while a house burned to the ground.

Family Says They Couldn't Reach 911

A family home of nearly 40 years was destroyed by fire early Wednesday after residents said they couldn't reach 911.
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A Dallas home in south Oak Cliff burned overnight Wednesday while family and neighbors said they tried and failed several times to reach 911.

"We lost everything.  Everything," said Melanie Harper, referring to the fire that destroyed her family's longtime home in the 1900-block of Berwick Avenue.

The family said the fire was first reported at about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday after they woke to the smell of smoke.

Each of the four family members were able to escape before the flames began to burn out of control, though the father was taken to a local hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation, family members said.

Lewis said several generations of the same family have occupied the house for the past 37 years.  She was able to salvage a handful of family photographs from what is left of the badly damaged building.

What is more alarming than the fire, the cause of which is under investigation, is the family's claim that repeated attempts to dial 911 were met with busy signals.

"It was just, 'Beep, beep, beep,'" Dolores Lewis told NBC 5.  Her sister, Dora Fuller, lives at the home that burned.

Neighbors, as well as city councilman Dwaine Caraway, are questioning why they were getting busy signals when trying to reach 911.

Caraway said he has questions about the system, which he said on the week of the Fourth of July should have been prepared for getting a lot of calls.

“The issue is folks called 911 at approximately 12:35 a.m., that time could go either way, but approximately 12:35,” he said. “The problem is the first call that was answered was at 12:41 a.m. That means there’s a gap, now we need to figure out what was going on in between the gap.”

Dallas Fire-Rescue confirmed receiving the first call at 12:41:51 a.m. and that companies were assigned to the call at 12:42:21 a.m. One minute later, firefighters were headed to the scene and at 12:45:03 a.m. they arrived at the home.

DFR said the average response time is about 5 minutes and that in this case, the 1:34 second response time was assisted by the close proximity of the home to the fire station.

A spokesman for DFR confirmed reports of someone knocking on the nearby firehouse door. He said when the door was answered, a car was peeling out of the fire station driveway.

The Dallas Police Department, who manages the 911 system, are looking into the calls and how the fire was handled.

“There have been many inquiries into the fire that occurred overnight on Berwick, particularly for DPD the calls that came into 911.  We are looking into this incident to determine what occurred," said Sgt. Warren Mitchell.

In a statement released to NBC 5 on Wednesday afternoon, the Dallas Police Department said:  A call by call review revealed that a 911 call first came in from the area of the fire at 12:36:09 a.m.  The caller hung up prior to reaching a 911 operator.  When this occurs, the 911 operator will call back the individual that dialed 911.  When the 911 operator did this, they reached the caller’s voice mail.  Six additional 911 hang-up calls came in from the area during the next three minutes, several within seconds of each other.  During this time, 911 operators attempted to call back two additional times and each time were connected to voicemail.  At 12:39:27 a.m., a caller dialed 911 and hung up prior to reaching an operator; the operator called back two seconds later at 12:39:29 a.m. and reached a caller who then reported the fire on Berwick.  The call was transferred to Dallas Fire Rescue immediately.  Unfortunately, this caller was unable to provide an exact location for the fire.  An additional 911 call came in and was transferred to DFR.  This caller was able to provide an accurate location and DFR assigned their first unit to respond to the location at 12:42:21 a.m.  This unit arrived at the location of the fire two minutes, forty-two seconds later at 12:45:03 a.m.  Dallas Fire Rescues’ goal is to arrive at a fire within five minutes, thirty seconds of receipt of a 911 call.  In this case, 911 first became aware of the fire at 12:39:29 a.m. and DFR arrived at the fire at 12:45:03 a.m., five minutes and thirty-four seconds later.

DPD also said at one point during the 15 minute period they had 44 calls holding for the 911 operators.

NBC 5's Ray Villeda contributed to this report.

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