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Despite years of breakdowns and internal complaints over Cincinnati's 911 service, it took the death this month of 16-year-old Kyle Plush — who twice called for help as he was suffocating inside of a minivan — to prod city and police officials to take action.
On Monday, they pledged sweeping reforms, and said the City Council's approval of $454,000 to increase staffing and upgrade technology at the emergency response center would be part of a 12-month action plan.
Police officials were wrapping up their internal investigation into Plush's two 911 calls for help on April 10 while he was parked near his school, and are expected to make their results public on Wednesday.
Plush's father found his body about five hours after the first call, with the boy somehow pinned by a third-row seat in the back of the van.
Members of the City Council at a Law and Public Safety Committee hearing on Monday were adamant that the 911 system must require that dispatchers correctly respond to calls and get callers the help they need — beyond simply creating a benchmark for calls to be answered within a certain amount of time.
"Did we capture the information correctly?" asked Councilman Greg Landsman. "That to me is the measure that should be pursued."
Among the changes that police officials are pursuing:
- Training and retraining staff.
- Hiring more staff and attracting them with competitive salaries and benefit packages.
- Having staff visit another city's successful 911 center and going into the field to better understand the chain of command.
- A portal for the public to track what has been implemented and oversee how the center is performing.
"We owe it to the city of Cincinnati and especially the Plush family to get this right," said acting City Manager Patrick Duhaney, who replaced the previous city manager after he resigned this month amid public outrage over the emergency response center's failures.
Problems with Cincinnati's 911 service since at least 2013 forced Ohio's third-largest city to re-examine its system and recognize poor management and a lack of staffing were taking its toll. Then, a Cincinnati Enquirer investigation last year found that the 911 service experienced blackouts of more than seven hours at least nine times in 2016 and 2017.
A scathing memo by a former 911 dispatcher made public in February claimed that dysfunction fostered by management at the center "poses a threat to members of the public."
Plush's case was the worst possible outcome of the flawed system, city officials say.
Emergency operators were first alerted to the trapped teen when he used his iPhone's voice-activated Siri function to call 911 at 3:14 p.m. ET, Cincinnati police said.
"I'm stuck in my van outside the Seven Hills [unintelligible] parking lot," Plush, who was audibly gasping between words, said in the call.
"The Seven Hills what parking lot?" the dispatcher responded, then asked, "Where are you?"
"Send help. I'm going to die here," Plush said, shortly before he disconnected after nearly three minutes into the call.
Police officers were finally dispatched and then arrived at the scene more than 10 minutes later, but didn't find Plush or anyone in distress.
Police noted that Plush did not directly respond to any of the dispatcher's questions.
At 3:35 p.m., the teen made a second call to 911. He was able to give the make and model of the vehicle — a 2004 Honda Odyssey — that he was in. He also left a heartbreaking message:
"I probably don't have much time left, so tell my mom that I love her if I die."
Again, a sheriff's deputy went to the scene, but didn't report seeing anything wrong. Plush was found shortly after 8 p.m. by his father, Ron Plush, who discovered his son trapped and unresponsive between the third-row bench seat and the van's back door. First responders were unable to revive the boy.
The Hamilton County Coroner's Office said his death was accidental, caused by asphyxia due to chest compression.
Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac said this month that the department was investigating the second call in particular, and why the dispatcher was unable to relay the information that would have helped the deputy reach Plush.
"We weren't able to get that information to the officers on the scene and we need to find out why," Isaac said. "I'm not certain at this point if we're talking about an equipment malfunction or some type of user error possibly."
In a later audit of the incident, the dispatcher who took the second call said the computer-aided dispatch was "acting up," reported NBC affiliate WLWT.