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Gwinnett County and a 911 call nightmare

Gwinnett had one of the worst 911 answer times in metro Atlanta, according to an AJC investigation.

On Father’s Day of 2023, Lisa Hall and her husband, Doug, were watching the U.S.-Canada soccer match when Doug made a strange noise.

It wasn’t a groan or a moan, but a noise so odd and horrific that Lisa still can’t describe it. She rushed to her husband’s side, as the Canadian national anthem blared from the television, and saw her husband’s eyes rolled up in his head.

He was in cardiac arrest.

As a trained nurse, Hall knew precisely what to do: She immediately started compressions with one hand and dialed 911 with the other. That’s when she heard the recording:

You have reached Gwinnett County 911. The next available operator will be with you shortly. Please, do not hang up.

“And then it just kept playing it,” she said. “Over and over and over.”

Hall lives in Gwinnett County, which had one of the worst 911 answer time rates in metro Atlanta, according to an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The AJC examined data representing millions of calls across the metro counties and found that an alarmingly high number of callers were placed on hold. In Gwinnett, 1 in 5 calls took longer than a minute to answer last year.

The industry standard dictates that 95% of calls should be answered by the 20-second mark. Gwinnett fell short of that standard in 1 in 3 calls to 911 in 2023. Just 65% of calls were answered within 20 seconds, county data show.

“I’ve heard, anecdotally, both sides: I’ve heard that it’s gotten better, and I’ve heard that it’s still the same,” Jasper Watkins III, a Gwinnett County commissioner, said about constituents being put on hold.

For the past four years, the percentage of calls answered within 20 seconds has hovered between 74% and 65%.

At first, that Father’s Day was just like any other for the Halls.

They ran through their Sunday routine: coffee at their Loganville home, then church, then breakfast at a local spot. Doug’s son stopped by to celebrate his father and, much to Doug’s delight, brought along his granddaughter.

Hours later, Lisa was on the verge of losing her husband. When she first dialed 911, she was convinced she dialed the number incorrectly. She had never heard of people not getting through.

“I thought almost like I was out of my body, watching this happen to somebody else,” Hall said. She remembered thinking, “This cannot be happening. This doesn’t happen. You don’t get a 911 call that was a recording.”

She kept the call on speaker while she breathed air into her husband’s mouth and pumped his chest. Every so often, she’d briefly stop to run outside in her nightgown and scream for help. Eventually, she set off her car alarm. A neighbor heard Hall’s pleas for help and rushed in to assist with compressions.

Finally, a 911 operator’s voice came through the phone after 5 minutes and 33 seconds, according to police records.

“I’m very short of breath, so listen to me carefully,” Hall recalled saying to the operator. “I have a 66-year-old man, down, cardiac arrest. I need help now. I cannot answer questions. I can barely breathe.”

When EMS finally arrived at the Halls’ home, Lisa said they shocked Doug’s body and he still had electrical activity in his heart. He was taken into an ambulance and died shortly thereafter, according to Hall.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Lisa Hall reaches for a photo of her husband, Doug, who was also a nurse. She says her experience with 911 failing her family makes her worry for the safety of the entire community. Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Officials with the Gwinnett County E-911 center declined requests to be interviewed about its emergency call answer times.

Instead, a spokesperson for the E-911 center said in a statement that the center is aggressively working to retain staff and has reduced the number of vacant spots by 42% since April 2023. County leadership also approved more positions for the center. These changes, along with others, are leading to improvements in answer times, according to Gwinnett.

“Continuing to improve the overall operation of the 911 center remains a top priority for the Gwinnett County Police Department, to ensure that the citizens of Gwinnett County are receiving the quality service they deserve,” Michelle Miller, communications director of the Gwinnett County E-911 Center, said in a statement.

Hall believes that had 911 picked up within the 20-second standard by which they are supposed to answer, her husband might still be alive. If EMS had gotten there sooner, the responders’ equipment potentially could have helped save his life.

Hall said her experience with 911 failing her family makes her worry for the safety of the entire community. That’s why she is sharing her personal horror story, she said.

“Doug should not die in vain,” she said. “Other people should know that this has happened.”

“I owe it to him to make sure that this doesn’t happen to anybody else.”