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Plush family to ECC commander after apology: 'Fix it'

The Cincinnati City Council's Law and Public Safety Committee discusses staffing and the 911 system. (WKRC)

CINCINNATI (WKRC) - A dozen police and city officials, along with current and former employees of the Emergency Communications Center, testified Tuesday at the Law and Public Safety Committee about issues with the center and problems that may have contributed to the death of Kyle Plush.

The meeting started with Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman calling for a moment of silence.

Twelve city officials were expected to speak at City Hall. The meeting began with City Manager Harry Black, Police Chief Eliot Isaac and Asst. Chief Teresa Theetge.

Plush, 16, died a week ago after calling 911 twice for help as he was trapped in his minivan at Seven Hills School. Two Cincinnati police officers were dispatched to the school. The officers searched for 10 minutes and didn’t find anything, so they left. While the officers were still on scene, Plush called 911 a second time, begging for help and listing his location and a description of his van. The information was never passed along to the officers on the scene.

Amber Smith, a 911 call taker, answered Plush’s second call. She treated it as a call from a hearing-impaired person. Smith told her supervisors that she didn’t hear anyone in distress on the call. On the recording, Plush can be heard giving his location and a description of his van. He also said that he wanted his mother to know that he loved her if he died.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Law and Public Safety Committee chair Christopher Smitherman read from an email from Tri-Tech, the company assisting in analyzing any technical problems. The email stated the Computer Aided Dispatch, or CAD, did not freeze during the call. Smith had told supervisors the CAD crashed and her computer froze at the time of the call.

“This workstation was operational at the time of the call and logs show there was normal operator activity before, during and after the call. CAD does not control or interact with the audio of the 911 calls and could not affect the quality of the voice in the headset,” Smitherman read from the email.

Isaac appeared surprised by the revelation, saying he didn’t have the information and that it would be pertinent to the investigation.

Isaac said Smith would return to work Wednesday after a seven-day administrative leave but would not be taking 911 calls. He said she would be assigned other administrative duties because of the ongoing investigation.

“It’s important to remember she’s a member of civil service, a member of a represented union on the part of the city. She is also entitled to due process, so as these type of incidents unfold, we have other protocol that we have to adhere to," Isaac said.

Isaac said he did not know whether the two police officers who responded to the scene that day exited their vehicles to look for Plush. He said the investigation would reveal that.

Current and former employees of the ECC testified about shortages in staffing and low morale. Cranley’s office provided numbers that showed the ECC has a deficit of 32 dispatchers and call takers combined. City council authorized the hiring of 10 call takers but Theetge testified that process will not be complete until the end of 2018. Theetge said the hiring process is long because they need to ensure the “right people are in the seats.”

Current IT professionals said they do not have the proper staff at the ECC.

“I have personally stuck my neck out for two years, asking for help, for people, for support, for a budget. I’ve been vocal in meetings,” said Jennifer King, an ECC computer systems analyst.

Kathy Schulte, the director of the CODE Board which represents supervisors at the ECC, said IT is woefully understaffed at the center. Former employee Elizebeth Christenson said morale was low at the center and she felt some supervisors berated employees, creating a toxic environment.

Members of Plush’s family sat in the front row during the hours-long hearing. They often hung their heads during some of the testimony.

Members of city council, Isaac and Black offered their condolences to the Plush family.

As testimony neared an end, Capt. James Gramke, Cincinnati’s 911 Center commander, turned toward the Plush family and offered an emotional and personal apology.

“I’m in charge of the communication center and I was in charge last week. No matter what happened, whether it was structural, command, technology or people, Kyle called twice for help, and I didn't get him help. So, it rests with me. And I can't apologize enough,” said Gramke.

Five hours of testimony was visibly and emotionally draining on everyone in the room. However, a point trying to be made by council member Wendell Young seemingly came out wrong, as he said:

“Sometimes it’s not one person’s fault but the collective fault of the system that could have worked better but was one of those perfect storms that happened where no matter what happened on that particular day, your son was not going to be saved,” said Young. “I suspect there will be attempts do what the law allows to be done to try in some way [to] make up for what happened to you but there is no amount of money that is going to make you happy, there’s no amount of blame that will make the situation better.”

Young was cut off my members of the Plush family, who shouted back at:

“Stop this right here, this is the most insensitive thing I’ve ever heard. You guys (other council members) were doing wonderful until this guy (Young) started talking. I’m sorry but you’ve crossed the line.”

Smitherman, a council member and chair of the Law and Public Safety Committee, ended the meeting by saying, "We must fix these problems now."

The committee is expected to get a full report from the ECC about work flow and culture on April 30.

Isaac told the committee he expects the investigation to be complete before then.


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