Flood of 911 calls about fire overloaded dispatchers

Safety analyst believes lessons can be learned

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The volume of calls to 911 on Tuesday from people concerned about a fire at an apartment complex under construction at the St. Johns Town Center overloaded emergency dispatchers and led to unusually long wait times for dozens of callers, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.

In a statement, JSO said, "We apologize for any inconvenience, and want to thank the hundreds of callers that responded to this emergency."

Channel 4 safety analyst Ken Jefferson has a long history of handling mass incidents and crises as a former law enforcement officer.

"I've had the opportunity to respond to mass incidents, such as the Berkman Plaza collapse as well as the T2 Laboratory explosion," he said.

Jefferson believes there are some valuable lessons to be learned from Tuesday's fire.

"They need to streamline the process a little bit better," he said. "In a situation like that when they're getting hundreds of calls on the same thing, just mitigate it in the first 10 seconds and move on to the next caller."

IMAGES:  Fire at apartment building construction site

Commander Chuck Mulligan, of the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, said the challenge in managing a heavy influx of calls is something agencies across the nation, including his department, battle.

"At the immediate onset, you can always overwhelm the system," Mulligan said.

He said the problem is compounded by those who treat the emergency line as an information service, which ties up valuable resources.

"We don't want that person who truly needs us at that scene or somewhere else to be getting a busy signal when they call 911," Mulligan said.

If Tuesday's fire had been more severe, could the JSO emergency communications center have handled it?

Both Jefferson and Mulligan say yes, but Jefferson believes some additional training would be prudent.

"Now they can have a learning experience and turn that learning experience into a training experience so they can improve the process," Jefferson said.

Mulligan also pointed out that most agencies have a Reverse 911 system they use during mass emergencies. It distributes information to the community and is considered a vital tool in law enforcement.

As for the apartment fire, the State Fire Marshal said the cause of the blaze was accidental, but did not release any other details. Damage was estimated to be about $80,000.

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