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Dispatch to fatal fire delayed nearly 4 minutes

By Adam Schrager, aschrager@wisctv.com
Published On: Jun 09 2014 07:29:20 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 10 2014 11:56:41 AM CDT

A 51-year-old Madison native died in an apartment fire last October that took the Dane County 911 Center nearly four minutes to dispatch firefighters to. The three minutes and 48 seconds before fire crews were alerted is more than two minutes longer than the national standard set for getting firefighters to a structure fire.

MADISON, Wis. -

A 51-year-old Madison native died in an apartment fire last October that took the Dane County 911 Center nearly four minutes to dispatch firefighters to. The three minutes and 48 seconds before fire crews were alerted is more than two minutes longer than the national standard set for getting firefighters to a structure fire.

Chris Williams was found by firefighters at his front door without a pulse after spending the last half hour of his life calling his neighbors to encourage them to call their senators to weigh in on last fall's congressional budget shutdown. The cause of the fire, which began in his apartment, remains unknown.

Chris Williams' brother, Jim Williams, who did not know about the delay to get firefighters out the door until nearly eight months after Chris's death, called the delay unacceptable. He said he's always believed that his brother was trying to get out. His door was unlocked and Jim Williams believes that help arriving sooner could have made a difference.

"It's not just a simple, he died. It's not that simple," Jim Williams said. "There are a lot of questions that aren't answered."

Dane County 911 Director John Dejung apologized to the Williams family and said he wished the situation "wouldn't have happened." However, he could not account for the total amount of time included in the delay.

He said both the call-taker and the dispatcher had to override their computer, which listed Chris Williams' apartment complex at 6425 Bridge Road in Monona, not Madison. That process took each roughly 40 seconds; 911 staff underwent training last fall to recognize and work-around what Dejung called boundary issues.

But that leaves roughly 2 minutes of that 3:48 delay that Dejung was not able to explain.

"The processing time took longer than it should have, much longer than we're happy with," he said. "It can happen. We're in a business that's very dangerous and there can always be unfortunate endings."

Dejung said he listened to the first 911 call before his interview with News 3, roughly eight months after the fire. He did not listen to the dozen more 911 calls reporting the fire. At least two of those callers asked 911 operators where the fire trucks were.

"I don't see anybody here yet," one caller said. "Where the hell are they?"

A pre-alerting system giving 911 operators more flexibility to get crews going faster was implemented earlier this spring with positive early results.

Dejung said that might have helped in this case, but the 911 operator told callers on two separate occasions that "help is on the way." Dejung could not explain if the operator sent the information to the dispatcher and expected it to be dispatched sooner.

The 911 incident dispatch report shows the first fire crew was assigned at 3:46:21 p.m. The nearly four-minute dispatch delay led Madison Assistant Fire Chief Lance Langer to file a formal complaint with management at the Dane County 911 Center. His query and multiple follow-ups have gone unanswered.

"Chris Williams expected more. Chris Williams deserved more," Langer said. "We've got to make sure there's not another Chris Williams."

Without a reason as to why there was the 3:48 delay in getting firefighters out the door, he said he is not convinced the same scenario could be prevented in the future. Recent changes to the 911 Center, allowing operators to pre-alert crews of a potentially serious situation, has helped get firefighters, paramedics and police officers out the door faster. However, Langer said he doesn't know whether that would have helped in Chris Williams' case as the 911 Center has not told him what actually caused the delay.

"What I can tell you is we're not giving up," Langer said. "We'll keep prying and digging."

Further, Langer's formal complaint regarding the Oct. 16, 2013, fire is not the only one that has gone unanswered. Open records requests show 157 written complaints from both the Madison Fire Department and the Madison Police Department over the last year. Dozens have gone unanswered.

The complaints range from topics of delayed dispatch times and wrong emergency crews being dispatched to scenes, to crews being sent to the wrong addresses

Dejung said his management staff has categorized complaints in the past, choosing to address them in a group if they covered the same subject matter rather than individually. He said 911 records did not indicate that Langer's complaint was a formal complaint.

"It was not investigated to my satisfaction, and I believe it's because we didn't believe it was a complaint. We weren't aware it was a complaint," Dejung said.

Langer, meanwhile, said he understands why Jim Williams would ask why his brother died. He said he could not answer that question conclusively, but that a faster response might have made a difference.

"We can't do anything sitting in the station," Langer said. "Had we been notified 3:48 earlier and moved the clock back, we probably would have increased his odds. Can we save everybody? No. But when we're handicapped like this with a 3:48 delay, it makes it even worse."

Langer said 3:48 to a fire crew would seem like a lifetime. The National Fire Protection Association's dispatch standard is to send help within 90 seconds 90 percent of the time and within 120 seconds 99 percent of the time.

Jim Williams met numerous people at his brother's funeral; some came from as far away as Minneapolis and Chicago. He said his brother, who was struggling with his own health problems, always believed in helping others. It's why he said he will remain vigilant in ensuring the 911 Center performs according to national standards in the future.

"It's just not right," Jim Williams said. "Chris would be very upset right now. Knowing these facts, (he'd) be more upset than me. This is a completely unacceptable situation."

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