911 calls released after Kiezer on-hold response

5-13-13-keizer fire-flame
At the scene of Monday's fire at the Apple Blossom Apartments. The fire was fueled by arborvitae bushes behind the complex.

KEIZER, Ore. (KOIN) — Neighbors were left waiting on holed with 911 while a fire ripped through an apartment complex Monday.

That fire happened at the Apple Blossom Apartments in Keizer.

This fire displaced around 20 people, and raised safety concerns after callers were put on hold while calling 911. The  911 calls to report that fire were released Tuesday, following KOIN 6 News’ request.

In one you can hear the caller sighing as he said “I’m on hold.” And then the operator picked up: “911.”

Caller: “Yeah, actually I’m on River Road behind Abby’s,” he said, seemingly surprised that the dispatcher picked up. “There’s a fire.”

He’s one of 27 people who called in — within a 3 minute span — to report what became a 2-alarm fire at the Apple Blossom Apartments Monday.

The calls inundated the four operators and one supervisor who were working.

Caller: “It’s spreading fast. It’s spreading to an apartment building.” Operator: “Is the apartment on fire at this point?” Caller: “The windows are cracking.”

Many of the callers received a recording — telling them not to hang up.

“I got a recording,” 911 caller Liza Pedroza told KOIN 6 News. She said she sat on hold for about five minutes waiting to report the fire. “Then,” she said, “I got somebody.”

Even though no one was hurt, some felt they could not wait for dispatchers, and started calling the fire station.

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

On Monday night, Cowan talked to KOIN 6 News about the practice of putting people on hold during an emergency, and said it concerns him. But, he said it will continue to happen until a new system is put into place.

The Willamette Valley Communications Center handles 911 calls for Keizer and 28 other police, fire and medical agencies in and around Salem, Ore.

“I can’t speak to the concern of the fire chief,” said Mark Buchholz, director of the Willamette Valley Communications Center.

He told KOIN 6 News that “holding incidents” happen about three or four times a year. And said he felt his team was adequately staffed for a usual Monday afternoon.

“Of course, you can imagine, if we have five call takers on duty and 27 calls come in — we can’t speak to them all at once,” he said.

However, Buchholz said staff is reviewing the wait times to see how long callers were put on hold.

“Obviously, if I had more money, I would have more people, and these incidents would be answered faster,” he said. “But I think that’s just a fact of life.”

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