‘This is a horrible situation’: Baby killed by dog highlights 911 delays

A father whose infant son was mauled by the family’s dog last week was unable to reach emergency dispatchers during two calls to 911 in which he waited for about 30 seconds each time -- triple the national standard for emergency call hold times.

The father hung up after waiting for an answer, and the parents of the 3-day-old boy decided to rush him to a hospital themselves. The baby, identified as Sebastian Caban, was declared dead at the hospital.

According to the San Diego County coroner’s office, UCSD Thornton Hospital Emergency Department staff began cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the infant “to no avail.” The coroner listed the cause of death as dog bites to the head.

The incident occurred Thursday evening when the parents were in bed watching TV with their son and their dog. When the child’s mother coughed, the pit bull mix was startled and reacted by biting the infant’s head, authorities said.


San Diego police officials said all 12 available dispatchers were handling other emergency calls at the time. The father, who was using a cellphone, made his first call at 7:27 p.m. and waited for an answer for 28 seconds before hanging up. He called again at 7:28 p.m. and waited 34 seconds.

“This is a horrible situation,” San Diego Police Lt. Scott Wahl said. “Our goal is to answer these phone calls immediately, and our dispatchers are doing everything they can to make that happen.”

During the half hour from 7:15 to 7:45 p.m., dispatchers received 73 emergency calls. The incident highlights an ongoing problem that has led to criticism of San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer from rival candidates in the June primary. Ed Harris and Lori Saldana have accused the incumbent of not doing more to boost hiring and retention of dispatchers.

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“It’s a supply and demand issue,” said Harris, a lifeguard union chief and former interim City Council member. “When you treat your employees poorly and you don’t pay them competitively and you’re in a region where people can leave, they leave. Had the mayor paid the dispatchers competitively, we might not see that issue.”

In response, Faulconer has released a list of actions he says were taken to bolster dispatch centers, including funding for positions, increasing base and merit pay and ramping up recruiting.

The Police Department says it has struggled with an understaffed dispatch center for years and is working to fill 19 vacancies among 131 budgeted positions as of April 9. Recently, the agency offered to pay police officers overtime to staff a variety of dispatcher positions as a stopgap measure.

The department says wait times to get through to a 911 operator averaged about 13 seconds in 2015, although officials acknowledge some callers have had to wait minutes when lines are busy. The average wait times over the last two weeks has been 13 seconds.

The standard is to answer calls in 10 seconds or less 90% of the time, according to the National Emergency Number Assn.

Budget cuts in 2010 meant that unfilled positions were eliminated and employees were not replaced when they retired or left for other jobs, said Mike Zucchet, general manager of the Municipal Employees Assn., which represents more than 4,000 of the city’s 11,000 workers, including police and fire dispatchers.

Dispatchers have been required to work mandatory overtime when necessary.

“It’s not sustainable, and it’s taking a huge toll on employees,” Zucchet said.

In October, the city approved a new contract designed to boost employee recruitment and retention.

Winkley writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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