Urgent 911 calls find SCHP troopers too busy to respond

South Carolina News
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(WSPA) – It was a weekday afternoon on Interstate 385 when a passenger, headed north, saw something so alarming she dialed 911 to make what may have been a terrible prediction.

“It’s this car that’s all over the road,” the caller said, “They’re going to kill somebody!”

The caller told dispatchers about a gold Mercury, gave the vehicle’s license plate information and said the driver appeared impaired.

Moments later, another driver spotted the same car.

“It’s a tan Mercury or whatever, he’s all over the road,” the caller said. “She’s coming up behind us, she’s over, she’s over in the yellow line!”

That Mercury would eventually prompt a third call that day, but, by then, it was too late.

State investigators said that car slammed into a tractor on Highway 308 in Laurens County.

The crash killed a 29-year-old farmer named Wesley Robinson.

Callers at the scene told dispatchers what they saw.

“Airbags have been deployed on the car and it’s a Mercury,” the callers said.

According to his death certificate, Wesley Robinson died at 2:05 p.m. That’s exactly 20 minutes after the Highway Patrol was first alerted to a swerving car with what looked to the caller like an impaired driver.

While other emergency responders arrived soon after the crash, the first trooper wouldn’t arrive until after 3 p.m.

That’s one hour and 18 minutes after the first 911 call.

7News began investigating these response times for 911 calls after anchor Gordon Dill had an experience with a similar call.

“You guys gotta hurry, Hammett Bridge Road, Greenville County,” he said on the call. “I just witnessed a hit and run accident involving what appeared to be a high school student. He’s almost hit three other people.”

He said he saw a car drift through an intersection and T-bone a pickup truck that was waiting at the light. The car kept going, slow and unsteady, through a nearby yard and back onto the road, weaving into oncoming traffic.

The driver would crash twice more, while speeding past two schools during dismissal time.

After blocking the driver in a driveway, Gordon waited for more than a half hour for a trooper to arrive. He never saw one.

“When that call comes in that there is a DUI or a suspected DUI on the roadway, it’s all hands on deck. We’re going to do everything in our power to get a trooper to you at that point and time,” Highway Patrol spokesman Sergeant Bill Rhyne said.

But even with all hands on deck, troopers may not be able to help in time.

There are delays on dispatch, and because there are a limited number of troopers to patrol the Upstate, there can be delays in response.

When that first caller dialed 911 on the day Wesley Robinson died, they got a dispatcher from Laurens County.

That emergency center then transferred the call to another dispatcher at the Highway Patrol.

The caller got an automated message saying, “You have reached…Thank you for calling the highway patrol dispatch center. All our operators are busy dispatching other callers.”

When Gordon called 911 while chasing a hit and run driver in Greenville County, dispatchers there made the same transfer and he got the same message. Other callers have reported getting a similar message.

And once a caller gets through to dispatch, the search for a nearby and available trooper begins.

Finding one, can take time. For example, in Greenville County there are 10 troopers working each 12-hour shift.

“It’s just the backup it’s just the number of collisions,” Rhyne said. “You’ve got 34 or 35 collisions in a 4-hour time span you’ve got 10 troopers working. Do the math.”

The troopers are assigned to geographic zones, four of them in each of the corners of the county. Others are assigned to patrol Interstates 85 and 385.

In most cases, those troopers will spend their day covering collisions.

In most Upstate cases, the highway patrol is the primary agency that responds to collisions. That means fender benders on state highways, overturned trucks on county roads and a scratch on a bumper in a fast food drive-thru are all handled by those same 10 troopers.

7News used the Freedom of Information Act to get the dispatch logs from two days in 2019.

The logs reflect dispatch calls in Greenville County between 3 and 7 p.m. on days when there was some rainfall in the area. Rain usually means there will be more collisions.

In that eight-hour period, the 10 troopers in Greenville County were dispatched 61 times.

In one case, a fatal crash in West Greenville was called in three times: The first call came in at 5:07, another at 5:08 and a third at 5:31.

The logs show the first trooper arrived on scene at 5:33.

The average response time was about 20 minutes, but there were seven calls that took more than an hour.

“There are many times that you come out and that’s what you do. You go collision to collision to collision throughout the day,” Rhyne said. “In a normal day that’s very common for us to have more collisions taking place than we have troopers, so we have to prioritize.”

Normally, it’s a shift supervisor who determines the priority of the call and it’s that supervisor who would decide that troopers are too busy or too far away to respond quickly to a 911 call. Only after that supervisor’s decision will the agency ask other agencies to “be on the lookout.”

BEYOND ORIGINAL REPORTING:

Ever wonder why we cover a story and how long it takes for our reporters to gather all of the information? On Thursday night after his story aired, Gordon answered those questions and more during our Beyond Original Reporting Facebook Live. Hear what Gordon had to say about this story below:

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