911 callers for 2-alarm Keizer fire left on hold

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So many calls came into the 911 dispatch center on this Keizer apartment fire that callers to 911 were greeted with a hold message May 13, 2013. (KOIN 6 News)

KEIZER, Ore. (KOIN) — When flames tore through a Keizer apartment complex late Monday afternoon, neighbors immediately phoned 911.

But callers such as Liza Pedroza had trouble getting through.

“I got a recording,” Pedroza told KOIN 6 News. She said she sat on hold for about five minutes waiting to report what became a two-alarm fire at the Apple Blossom Apartments.

She wasn’t the only one put on hold. As a result, some neighbors ended up bypassing 911 to call the nearest fire station directly.

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The siding melted during Monday’s two-alarm fire in Keizer. (KOIN 6 News)

“You have to think about the volume of people and everyone using their cell phones,” said Keizer Fire Chief Jeff Cowan. At the time, he said, the fire was “lighting up the sky” — with calls lighting up the fire station’s virtual switchboard.

The incoming calls “tied up some of our folk, myself included,” said Keizer Fire Chief Jeff Cowan.

It’s the inundated 911 emergency center that Cowan said most concerns him.

The director for the Willamette Valley 911 Communications Center, which handles Keizer’s calls, said this  was no system failure. Instead, the director Mark Buccholz said, it was “a staffing issue.”

WVCC is a regional operation. Its website said it provides 911 call-answering and public-safety dispatching services for 29 police, fire and medical agencies in and around Salem, Ore.

With only so many dispatchers on a shift, those on duty simply could not handle the sheer volume of calls.

So should Salem-area residents be worried?

“I don’t think they should be worried,” Buccholz said. “Stay on the line. We are gonna get the call answered.”

Buccholz admits to KOIN 6 News that calls were put on hold, but did it jeopardize lives?

Not in this case.

“The call that matters is the one that gets it to the dispatch, when 911 is dispatched,” Buccholz said.

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Damage following a two-alarm fire at the Apple Blossom Apartments in Keizer, Ore. May 13, 2013. (KOIN 6 News)

That dispatch call went out at 3:07 p.m. The fire began when a near by arborvitae caught fire and then spread to the attic space of the four-unit building, according to the Statesman Journal in Salem.

No one was injured. Still, 30% to 35% of the structure sustained fire damage, according to the journal.

And for a system designed to save lives, any hold lag could put its callers in danger when seconds matter.

“Until we get a system that can take this kind of workload,” fire chief Cowan said, “we’re going to overload the system.”

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