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Bill aims to improve 911 response

Annie Zelm • May 21, 2011 at 1:00 PM

A recorded 911 call captured the last terrifying moments of Lisa Roswell's life when Cole Creek's floodwater engulfed her Volkswagen Beetle.

A Norwalk police dispatcher tried to keep Roswell calm and told her to stay in the car while she waited for help to arrive.

Firefighters arrived in about three minutes, but it was still too late.

The floodwater swept Roswell and her car off South Norwalk Road on Feb. 28, carrying it off into a nearby creek. Her body was still inside the car when search crews found it after the floods receded a day later.

Dispatcher Tacy Bond's supervisors maintain that Bond handled the call appropriately given the circumstances.

Some state lawmakers, however, believe the incident illustrates the pressing need for all dispatchers to receive more training for similar scenarios.

A bill introduced into the Ohio House last week would give emergency dispatchers additional tools to help them save lives, according to its sponsor, state Rep. Bill Patmon, D-Cleveland.

Others aren't so sure.

The Ohio chapter of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials said its executive committee is still reviewing Patmon's proposal and discussing its potential impact on dispatchers and emergency responders.

The bill would update 911 standards that have been in place since 1997.

Norwalk police Chief Dave Light said dispatchers like Bond have to use their experience and common sense every day as they walk people through life-threatening ordeals.

They can't always rely on written protocols because every situation is different, Light said.

Still, Light said he can't argue with the additional training the bill aims to provide.

"We'll take all the training we can get," he said.

Norwalk police dispatchers refer to a paper booklet for emergencies, but it doesn't instruct dispatchers to tell someone to exit a vehicle if it's submerged or stuck in water.

The company providing the instructions updated its system to include that information prior to Roswell's drowning, but Norwalk police haven't updated their dispatching system to include the new computer-based protocol.

The police department doesn't plan to update their system, either, partly because of the cost, Light said.

Jason Roblin, director of Huron County Emergency Management Agency, said he hopes the training protocol that legislators are proposing will differentiate between still water and rushing water.

The depth, speed and temperature of the water also impacts the outcome when someone tries to escape a submerged vehicle, Roblin said.

Bottom line: There isn't a set formula that applies to every situation.

"I just hope this isn't a knee-jerk reaction to a tragedy," Roblin said. "Sometimes that happens. But if it provides additional training, that's a good thing."

State Rep. Dennis Murray Jr., D-Sandusky, said after talking with emergency responders, he isn't sure the bill accomplishes its objective.

"While it's well-intended, those parts and pieces are already out there," Murray said, referring to protocol for situations involving fast-moving water. "I don't want to react to a tragedy by adding rules and regulations. It's hard to legislate for every situation."

Murray said he'd prefer to see training standards continually updated by the public safety community, rather than mandated by lawmakers.

Rep. Terry Boose, R-Norwalk, hasn't yet read the bill -- he wants more feedback from public safety officials before taking a stand.

"I like the idea from what I hear in general," Boose said. "I think the dispatcher in Norwalk did an excellent job, and I don't know if there's anything differently that could have been done.

"I support anything that makes emergency dispatchers' jobs easier," Boose said. "The last thing I'd want to do is push something that is not going to be beneficial."


WHAT IT DOES: Requires all dispatchers to receive 40 to 60 hours of training, compared to the current 40-hour requirement. The training must cover 33 key criteria, including a protocol for responding to callers in submerged vehicles.

WHY: To ensure all dispatchers have the tools needed to save lives, according to the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Bill Patmon.

HOW IT'S FUNDED: The bill says it will rely on a fund already established in the state treasury for dispatcher training. A financial analysis of the bill has not yet been released, so it's not clear exactly what the changes would cost.

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