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Premature Baby Dies After 911 Swamped With Non-Emergency Calls

Photograph by Twenty20

A Nebraska mom will always wonder if her baby would still be alive if she were able to get through to 911.

Joanna Coddington of Omaha delivered her daughter at home on July 5, three months premature. The mom noticed her baby, who was to be named Angel, wasn't breathing, so she called 911 multiple times, only to receive a busy signal each time.

Coddington called her mom, Theresa Kerby, at work. As Kerby rushed to her daughter, she tried to call 911 from her phone twice but also got a busy signal.

After more than 15 minutes of trying to reach emergency responders, Coddington and her mom drove to the closest emergency room, but it was already too late for baby Angel.

Douglas County 911 Director Dave Sleeter told KETV that on that day, the dispatchers were overwhelmed with three to four times the normal amount of calls. Most of the calls were non-emergencies to report fireworks complaints (434 fireworks complaints that day compared with 171 on the same date the previous year).

As Kerby rushed to her daughter, she tried to call 911 from her phone twice but also got a busy signal.

It also doesn't help that each cell phone carrier has a certain number of connections to 911. If all of them are in use, then the caller will get a busy signal, Sleeter noted.

"The next day, I learned it was mostly fireworks calls. Non-emergencies. That just infuriated me, because real emergencies, of life and death, were not able to get through. All because someone's sleep was inconvenienced," Kerby said.

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time emergency lines had been overwhelmed. In 2017, a 6-month-old boy in Dallas died after his babysitter repeatedly tried to call 911 for 40 minutes and failed. The baby had rolled off a daybed and onto the floor. The phone carrier, T-Mobile, had network technology that was partly to blame for "ghost calls," or duplicate calls generated from legitimate 911 calls, which had been clogging up the the city's emergency dispatch system for months.

The Douglas County 911 center has been running a traffic study to see how it can improve the system, including testing a non-emergency number in hopes that it will leave 911 circuits open for true emergencies. Hopefully, authorities can do better to prevent tragedies and the relentless "what ifs" that a grieving mom like Coddington is now too well aware of.

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