Is 911 'still a joke' for African-Americans?

Terrible. Just heartbreaking. This is the only way to describe the devastation in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York, early Easter morning, when a fire killed two 4-year-old children, Jai’Launi Tinglin and his half sister Ayina, due to smoke inhalation. Jai’Launi’s twin sister and the grandfather and aunt of the victims survived.

Apparently, one of the children was playing with a lighter in bed while the grandfather slept.

Firefighters had to take the limp bodies of the two children out of the burning house. And what is truly outrageous is that it took the ambulance 21 minutes after the 911 call was made to arrive at the scene—14 minutes to dispatch the ambulance, and another seven to drive to the home.  The fire started before 11:50 p.m. the night before Easter, and a neighbor called 911 at 11:51 p.m.  Fire trucks arrived on the scene at 11:56 p.m. and called the dispatcher at 11:57 p.m.  And yet, the ambulances were not dispatched until 12:05 am, the first one arriving at 12:12 a.m.

An investigation is underway, with the New York Times pointing to a breakdown in communications between the firefighters and the emergency dispatchers.  How and when the breakdown occurred is unknown, but what is known is that when firefighters arrive at a scene, the ambulance is called and dispatched immediately.  That did not happen, and obviously somebody messed up.  The time lag had deadly consequences.

Sadly, the whole thing should remind you of that 1990 Public Enemy song called “911 Is a Joke.”  For a refresher, here are some of the lyrics:

Hit me

Going, going, gone

Now I dialed 911 a long time ago

Don’t you see how late they’re reactin’

They only come and they come when they wanna

So get the morgue embalm the goner

The song’s themes resonated with poor, black and Latino communities who often are victims of crime but are not properly served by emergency responders when they are in need.  The police are readily available in these neighborhoods when there is a drug bust to concoct or an innocent young man of color to humiliate in a stop-and-frisk operation.  But the perception is that these communities are in trouble when paramedic crews are needed in an emergency situation.  Simply put, their real estate is not worth as much as that of the more white and affluent areas, which is reflected in the public services received.

When he ran for office, Mayor Bill de Blasio was highly critical of the 911 response system. In the second half of 2013 the average EMS response time was 9 minutes and 23 seconds, 19 seconds lower than the first two months of 2014.  In medical emergencies last year, the response time for fire engines was 6 minutes and 48 seconds, as opposed to 4 minutes and 16 seconds under the old method of counting—which was calculated from the time the 911 call was transferred to the dispatcher, as opposed to from the time someone calls 911.  In any case, what was clear in a March City Council hearing is the response time is too damn high.

And it is not just New York facing this problem.

In Denver, a woman was fatally shot by her husband at least 12 minutes into a 911 call.  Police arrived to find her dead from a gunshot wound to the head.  An internal investigation into the slow response time in this case will follow, in a city witnessing longer response times due to budget cuts, retirements, and departures.

According to a study by the Chicago Sun-Times, it takes 911 dispatchers over three times longer to send out a cop car in the predominantly black South Side of Chicago than downtown and the North Side.

In Hazelton, Pennsylvania, a man was shot multiple times last year and remained bleeding on the street for nearly half an hour before EMS was dispatched because no one could reach the Luzerne County 911.

Further, in Detroit, the average response time for the most serious crimes is 58 minutes.  In one case, a Detroit woman whose house was burglarized waited four hours for police to arrive.  This sobering reality reflects a city with deep financial woes, in which people laugh at 911 and consider alternate plans in an emergency situation, such as depending on friends or relatives for help.  As Flava Flav said, “I call a cab ’cause a cab will come quicker,” and he may have had a point.

Moreover, don’t find yourself waiting for 911 when you are an accident victim while black, fleeing a car wreckage and in need of help and medical assistance.  In the case of Renisha McBride in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, and Florida A&M grad Jonathan Ferrell in Charlotte, North Carolina, 911 was unable to help them when they were regarded as criminals and shot to death—McBride by a white man whose door she knocked on seeking help, and Ferrell by the police.

So, is 911 really still a joke?  Apparently yes, two and a half decades later.  But in Far Rockaway, nobody’s laughing, only crying.  As the song says, there’s not a minute to spare.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove