Recalled vehicle starts fire, emergency dispatch puts owner on hold

Comanche County_In Comanche County Thursday night, a car parked in a garage in a neighborhood west of Lawton caught fire and quickly spread to a home.  In the Pecan Valley neighborhood, the vehicle's owner heard a popping sound and noticed smoke and flames coming from the car.  Firefighters were able to stop the blaze, but not before it destroyed the car, a motorcycle, and causing smoke and some structural damage to the home.

While the owners are thankful, they're a little upset about how the city-county dispatch center handled the crisis.  The homeowners say along with neighbors they tried to call dispatchers several times during the fire, but kept getting busy signals.  When one of them finally got through, she was put on hold for eight minutes - unaware that firefighters had already been notified and were on their way.

As soon as David Stanley made his first 911 call, dispatchers paged the Cache Volunteer Fire Department.  Within three minutes they were on their way to the scene.  Lawton firefighters were also called to the scene because they were closer to the home.  But, the Stanley's weren't told this information - instead they heard busy signals, or were put on hold.  "I just didn't hear sirens, and I saw my house on fire, and it was getting bigger and bigger by the minute," says David Stanley.

Communications Director Darrell Morgan says the Stanleys were not the only people calling.  He says that since neighbors were calling too, it flooded the system - overwhelmed it.  "There were a couple of them who would call, and they were getting a busy signal because other people were calling, and the information was being gotten from them," he says.

Some of the calls were coming from cell phones as well, and Morgan says dispatch can only handle three incoming cell phone calls at a time for Comanche County.  But, Morgan says he disagrees with the Stanleys being put on hold.  "He could have got some cursory information and then passed it on them, rather than put her on hold, and her staying on there for eight minutes to get through."

Morgan says the first firefighters from Lawton were on the scene in about nine minutes.  He says the mutual aid request paid off and the emergency dispatch worked effectively.  "We got a really quick notification of the problem," he says.  "We did a very fast dispatch on that, and then we dealt with as many phone calls as we possibly could until we got the fire department on the scene."

Stanley says being on hold offered little comfort as he watched his belongings go up in flames.  "The fear of the unknown is what was getting me; not hearing sirens and not getting through to emergency services was just kind of frustrating."

Morgan says the combined city-county dispatching system is still "a work in progress."  The ultimate goal is to make all of their computer software and dispatchers able to handle calls for Lawton, Comanche County, and Fort Sill.

So, what caused the Stanley's car to catch fire?  General Motors issued a recall for the Pontiac Grand Prix.  They say there is a risk they could catch fire, and it's already happened more than 260 times.