EXCLUSIVE INVESTIGATION: How serious breakdowns in Cleveland's 911 system put your safety at risk

Posted at 10:59 PM, May 20, 2016

When you call 911, you expect to get help immediately.

An exclusive 5 On Your Side Investigation uncovered new information about the chronic failures of Cleveland’s 911 system.

For months, we’ve reported on dangerous delays, including problems connecting emergency calls Friday morning.

The pervasive problems have led emergency dispatchers to speak out about their concerns for public safety.

911 System Breakdowns

Cleveland’s emergency dispatchers asked their attorney, Keith Wolgamuth, to talk with 5 On Your Side Investigators.

Dispatchers told us they feared speaking with us on-camera could cost them their jobs.  

When 5 On Your Side Investigator Sarah Buduson asked if the system was broken, Wolgamuth replied, “I think pieces of it are, for sure.”

5 On Your Side investigators found dispatchers have been sounding the alarm about 911 malfunctions for months.  

Records we obtained show 27 reports of problems with the city’s 911 phone system since Oct. 1, 2015.  

The reports detailed how 911 callers were placed “on hold”, lost, and said the system malfunctions where there is “heavy volume.”

The reports we obtained do not include problems that occurred on May 16, when 911 calls about a high-rise fire went unanswered or malfunctions that occurred early Friday morning.

“It's an unacceptable rate,” said Wolgamuth.

Wolgamuth said so many 911 calls go unanswered, dispatchers are now routinely required to work overtime to call back missed emergency calls.

Critical Delays  

Dispatchers are also concerned about the safety of Cleveland’s patrol officers.

Wolgamuth said the computers used by dispatchers to send critical data to officers freeze at least three times a week.

One concerned dispatcher showed 5 On Your Side Investigators video they recorded of their computer screen going blank while they were handling emergency calls.

An “Antiquated” System

Cleveland’s patrol officers are also concerned about the state of the Division of Police’s computers.

In a letter sent to 5 On Your Side Investigator Sarah Buduson, a Cleveland patrol officer called the computer system used in the city’s patrol cars “antiquated.”

The officer said it keeps officers from patrolling the streets and delays the apprehension of dangerous criminals.

Here’s why: Officers cannot send reports from the computers in their cars.  

Instead, officers must return to their district headquarters and manually type up their reports.

Even from their office, the reports can’t be sent electronically to their records system.

The Division of Police still uses fax machines to send reports to a location where a police employee manually enters the information into the city’s records system.

The officer said the process can take hours, even days.

He said the system puts everyone’s safety at risk by leaving officers in the dark about suspects on the loose.

Cleveland Responds

In an interview with 5 On Your Side Investigator Sarah Buduson, Timothy Hennessy, Assistant Director – Facilities and Police, acknowledged there have been problems.

“We have had some hiccups,” he said.

“I don't think any system is perfect,” he said.

However, Hennessy downplayed the severity of the problems.

“I think when you really study the log there's not that many problems that often,” he said.

 “We're working on it. And I think we catch, we do get most of the calls,” he said.

He said the city is “constantly” in contact with Emergency CalWORKs, the company that provides the city’s 911 call taking software.

Motorola Solutions Responds

Emergency CallWorks is owned by Motorola Solutions.

Kevin Hegarty, Manager, North America Communications and Media Relations, Motorola Solutions, sent 5 On Your Side Investigators the following statement:

“Motorola Solutions is working closely with Cuyahoga County to quickly resolve reported 9-1-1 call taking issues impacting Cleveland public safety dispatchers. Call taking issues reported to Motorola Solutions are being addressed. Motorola Solutions remains committed to providing a mission-critical 9-1-1 solution designed to help keep both citizens and first responders safe.”

Fixes For the Future?

In March, Cleveland City Council approved a $2.4 million upgrade to the city’s CAD software as well as software to enable Cleveland officers to file reports from their vehicles.

However, the upgrades won’t be put in place until after the Republican National Convention.

A Mother’s Questions Unanswered

“I think it's sad on the city's behalf that they wouldn't even reach out and say something,” said Sonia Harris.

On Nov. 4, 2015, her son, Deonte, was shot on West 82nd Street and Neville Avenue.

After 5 On Your Side Investigators uncovered 911 dispatchers failed to answer calls for up to four minutes, Cleveland’s Department of Public Safety promised to investigate what went wrong.

During the calls, CECOMS dispatchers can be heard expressing frustration over Cleveland's failure to answer the calls.

"I mean, oh my God, come on Cleveland!" said a CECOMS dispatcher.

"Hello Cleveland? Cleveland! Three minutes and 38 seconds and then they hung up on me," she said.

Harris was later pronounced dead at Metro Health Medical Center.

Harris said no one from the City of Cleveland has ever called to apologize or explain the delays.

“Take some type of responsibility in it,” she said.

Hennessy said he we would look into the incident and find out why no one contacted Harris.

She said she wonders every day if her son would still be alive if help had arrived as it should have.

“He was only 24 and his life is gone,” she said.

“There was a big possibility he still could have been here . . .  there was still a chance. A chance that he was robbed of,” she said.