911 callers on hold as Atlanta house burned

By Christian Boone
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — Neighbors alerting 911 about a small house fire in west Atlanta Saturday afternoon say they waited on hold 20 minutes — so long that some decided to fight the blaze themselves with a garden hose.

The house is a total loss, its owner said.

"The damage is extensive because they didn't get here fast enough," said Janice Black, who lives across the street from the charred bungalow at 526 Dollar Mill Road. She said she was on hold "20-to-25 minutes."

"I was shocked when I finally got through to a real person," Black said.

Witnesses are left wondering if they can count on the city's emergency service. The target response time for calls to 911 is 10 seconds, according to Miles Butler, the city's 911 communications center director.

Addison Williams, who lives next door to the burned house, said he and his mother-in-law waited 15 minutes on hold. She timed the response by a clock on her bedroom wall, he said.

"That house burned at least 30 minutes before the first engine got over here," said Williams, who said he called at 4:09 p.m., soon after the blaze was ignited. "They didn't get there until 4:35."

Butler referred questions to Atlanta police. Police spokeswoman Lisa Keyes said in an e-mail that an investigation was under way.

"This is a world-class city," said Courtney Martin, who, with her husband, owned the Dollar Mill Road house. "How something like this could happen is mind-boggling."

The College Park attorney said she is pursuing legal action against the city. "It's frustrating because it didn't have to happen," said Martin, who was leasing the residence at the time of the fire. "It didn't have to burn like that. It was just a small basement fire."

So small, one witness said, neighbors initially went after it with a garden house. "There wasn't no one getting through to 911, so we took a hose down there" said Robert Ramey, who was at his brother's house two doors away. "But by that time, it was starting to spread."

A copy of the 911 audiotape from Saturday's fire was not immediately available, Atlanta police said Wednesday.

Some of the witnesses responding to Saturday's fire say their calls were diverted to either Fulton or Cobb counties, who reported similar difficulties reaching Atlanta's 911 Center.

"Even 911 couldn't get hold of 911," said Martin, noting her house sits less than three miles away from the nearest fire station, Number 9 on 3501 Martin L. King Jr. Drive.

Copyright 2009 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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