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Should the operator have stayed on the line? 911 call concerns some pros

Emergency call made by missing Ohio woman Amanda Berry after she escaped her accused captors' home displays her emotion and relief.

By Suzanne Choney, Contributing Writer, NBC News

At a time when the country is celebrating the bravery of three kidnapping victims and the heroism of their rescuer, unexpected public ire has fallen on the 911 operator who received Amanda Berry's heart-wrenching plea for help — particularly for not remaining on the line with her until the police arrived.

On Facebook, a "Fire the dispatcher that took Amanda Berry's call" page was launched soon after the 911 call began playing over and over on cable news. Frustration over the call's abrupt end started popping up all over Facebook, with posts like: "I can't believe the dispatcher dismissed her!!! No compassion, doesn't want to stay on phone with her" and "That 911 dispatcher should be disciplined for the way she handled that call!! She kept telling that poor girl to speak to the police when they got there ... she should have stayed on the phone until help arrived!"

On Twitter, comments were saltier: "Is it me or did that dispatcher piss anyone else off during Amanda Berry's 911 call?!"

The criticism reached Cleveland city officials, who said Tuesday they will review the actions of the 911 operator.

"While the call-taker complied with policies and procedures which enabled a very fast response by police, we have noted some concerns which will be the focus of our review, including the call-taker’s failure to remain on the line with Ms. Berry until police arrived on scene. Please be assured that this matter will be investigated, and if necessary, appropriate corrective action taken," said Martin L. Flask, director of the city's Department of Public Safety in a statement.

Emergency experts and trainers for 911 call centers say the dispatcher should have stayed on the phone longer with the distraught victim, who had broken free after allegedly being held captive for years along with two other women.

During the call, Berry asked if police were on their way, and was told they will be, "as soon as we get a car open."

"No, I need them NOW!" she beseeches the dispatcher, who also asks some more questions, but repeatedly tells Berry to "talk to the police when they get there," before hanging up.

"This young lady was very clearly upset, significantly affected, and it just seemed prudent to remain on the phone (with her) to obtain as much information as possible," Dennis Root, co-founder of Tactical Advantage Solutions, which trains emergency service workers, told NBC News. 

"You're the lifeline between this caller and responding units. She's been captive for 10 years. A few extra minutes on the phone is not going to hurt anybody."

Root, a longtime police officer for the cities of Riviera Beach and Martin County, Fla., said the goal of 911 personnel "is to gather as much information as possible. Initially, it sounded like the communications officer was in a bit of a rush to get off the phone and that they didn't understand the magnitude of the call they were receiving.

"When you're a 911 communications dispatcher, every call is the real deal, when you may make the difference between life and death," Root said.

Jon Shane, who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and previously was a police officer and emergency dispatcher in New Jersey, says the dispatcher got the important parts right. "They should have kept the caller on the phone" longer, but "they did what was right. They told her the police were coming, they got some limited description (of the suspect)."

"I would have probed further," he said. "'Was he armed?' 'Are you injured?' 'Are you with anyone else?' 'Who are you there with now?' 'May I speak to that person?' All sorts of things just to alleviate what's going on."

The National Emergency Number Association is a public safety organization that deals with 911 issues. Ty Wooten, operations and education issues director for the organization, told NBC News that the call may have been "a little bit short." However, he said, "When people call 911, they call on the worst day of their lives. No one is calling to report something happy. So everyone wants the fastest response that they can possibly get."

"With the budget cutbacks and the resources that are available today, public safety and 911 and those agencies which 911 support through the dispatch of their agencies can only do so much with the resources they have…it's not what someone wants to hear, but it's the reality of the situation," Wooten said.

Flask, the public safety director, did praise the call-taker's response time. "Within 1 minute and 18 seconds from the time that the call-taker answered the call our dispatcher was broadcasting the assignment to available police units. As a result of the call-taker’s actions, police were dispatched and on scene in less than 2 minutes," he said.

Nidhi Subbaraman also contributed to this report.


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