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MINUTES LOST: Did a 911 Computer Failure Lead to Death?

ATLANTA -- When the dispatching software and radio system crashed Sunday afternoon, Gwinnett County (Ga.) 911 operators and dispatchers were thrown back into the pre-computer age, relaying emergency calls by voice or handwritten notes, police said.

Those fleeting extra minutes may have cost the life of Astrid Hidalgo, a 19-year-old aspiring social worker who died after a tree fell on her in a Duluth apartment complex early Sunday evening.

"When you're talking about C.A.D. [computer-aided dispatch] working, you're talking about a matter of seconds as opposed to manually doing everything, which can takes minutes," said Gwinnett police Cpl. and spokesman Illana Spellman. "Those minutes add up."

Hidalgo's father didn't want to hear it.

"It shouldn't have happened," Mayro Hidalgo said.

Spellman said that the computer dispatching system went down at 4:30 p.m., perhaps four or five minutes before Astrid was hit by the tree as she was leaving her sister's apartment in Duluth to meet her ride home. The tree was apparently brought down by high winds, but the software malfunction wasn't believed to be related to the weather, Spellman said.

Police were dispatched at 4:42 p.m. and arrived at 4:54. The fire department was dispatched at 4:51 p.m. and arrived with a fire truck and ambulance at 5 p.m. By that time, Hidalgo had died.

Her father said that witnesses, including another daughter and a family friend, told him immediately after the accident Astrid was conscious, crying, "It hurts" and moving her arm, before dying.

Because the computer and radio systems went down, police do not yet know when the initial 911 call about Hidalgo came in, Spellman said. Mayro Hidalgo said witnesses told him that the first call was made at 4:35 p.m. Police and fire officials said their response times after being dispatched were within their average range.

After graduating from a Seventh-Day Adventist school in Virginia, Astrid Hidalgo planned to enroll at Gwinnett Technical College. The fourth of Mayro and Jane Hidalgo's five daughters was known for her sunny disposition.

"She was a walking jar of honey," Mayro said. "She was so sweet all the time."

Spellman said that, "as far as I know," the computer crash was due to a technical malfunction and not related to Sunday's weather that caused power outages and damaged homes across metro Atlanta. The system was not restored until 10 p.m., Spellman said.

"There have been times in the past where it's gone down for a few minutes or an hour, but never that long," Spellman said.

Spellman said police are investigating to make sure policy was followed.

"It was a freak accident, unfortunately, for her to be walking and get struck by that tree is just horrible," Spellman said.

The Hidalgo family will have visitation from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday at Bill Head Funeral Home on Lawrenceville Highway in Tucker, with a service at 8 p.m. The funeral will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at All Nations Seventh-Day Adventist Church on Oakbrook Parkway in Norcross.

SYSTEM BREAKDOWNS

Here are some incidents when metro Atlanta 911 centers had breakdowns.

* May 2, 2007: Gwinnett residents calling 911 heard a recorded message saying that the line was disconnected. The police and AT&T technicians fixed the system after about an hour and 40 minutes.

* June 22, 2006: A power surge crashed Atlanta's 911 center for 8 1/2 hours. Backup batteries failed as well. Operators resorted to writing down information by hand, using map books and calling emergency services by radio. Atlanta police said response time was not affected.

* June 5, 1998: Thunderstorms knocked out 911 service in Cherokee County. The agency got its backup generator working after about 15 minutes and transferred the 911 center to the mobile command trailer. The agency had to hand-carry the 911 messages to the trailer for dispatch.

* March 13, 1997: A lightning strike knocked out the Fayette County Fire and Emergency Services 911 center. Calls were switched to the Peachtree City Police Department switchboard. A Fayette Fire and Emergency spokesman said no calls were missed in the 20-minute interim.

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution archives

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