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With Dad Now On Life Support, Family Questions Mpls. 911′s Delayed Response

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(credit: CBS) Liz Collin
At 15 years old, Liz Collin made her broadcast debut covering...
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Pictures in a north Minneapolis dining room show the bright smile of 72-year-old Raymond Callahan, a man who loved nothing more than spending time with his large family.

“My father was a wonderful person,” said daughter Kamie Reed. “He would help anyone.”

But that happiness has been replaced by hurt now that Reed and her mother, Arcola Tullis, know there won’t be any more memories like them.

Callahan had just finished eating breakfast on Thursday morning when his wife says he motioned to her that he was having trouble breathing.

“I shook him and I said, ‘Raymond, are you alright?’ Tullis said. “He didn’t respond.”

She dialed 911, but her call rang for one minute without an answer before she hung up. The city told WCCO they tried three times to call her back.

But Arcola told us she was on the phone again, calling her niece in an upstairs apartment to come down and help.

One minute later, she tried 911 again, and this time waited two and a half minutes for an operator to pick up.

“I just have nightmares about what else could I have done myself because it took 911 so long to answer,” she said.

Because of what happened with her calls, it took nearly five minutes before paramedics even started to Callahan’s house.

Dr. Ganesh Raveendran, a cardiologist at the University of Minnesota, says that in the case of a massive heart attack, five minutes can be the difference between life and death.

“Every minute we delay, there’s a potential for damage to the heart muscle and that can lead to permanent damage,” Dr. Raveendran said.

Callahan will be taken off life support in the next few days.

A WCCO investigation last week exposed what some operators call dangerous staffing levels at Minneapolis 911.

We went undercover, and on one morning we captured calls sitting in a hold queue for an eight minute period of time – a combination of potential emergencies not being answered right away.

We also found there were times when just one operator was on the floor to answer phones, even though the city’s own minimum is three.

WCCO found a massive hiring and cross-training effort means staffing is the lowest it’s ever been on weekday mornings. Still, the city says it bases staffing on historical demand, and that its system is working.

So why did it take nearly five minutes and two tries for Tullis to reach 911? We’ve been asking since the day it happened. The city said it can’t answer due to a personnel issue, only saying that it was a typical Thursday morning with a normal number of calls.

But a spokesman acknowledged Arcola’s calls didn’t meet the city’s answer-time standards.

When our first story aired, Mayor Betsy Hodges called it “sensational” and said “facts were manipulated to scare people.”

The mayor then told us, moving forward, she would not answer questions about WCCO-TV’s investigation, even after we told her administration what happened to Callahan.

While his family waits for answers about the delays, they’ll never know the difference those five minutes might have made.

“They’re supposed to help, not tell somebody to hold on,” Reed said. “It’s not fair. It’s not right.”

Callahan’s family is waiting for everyone to fly in for a final goodbye before removing him from life support.

A statement from Heather Hunt, the city’s 911 director, told us that since the beginning of the year, Minneapolis 911 has answered more than 78,000 calls with an average answer time of seven seconds.

“There are times when calls take longer than average to be answered, and the department is always working to improve call answer times,” Hunt said.

The city says the quickest way to get help is to stay on the line. Someone will answer faster than if you hang up and dial again.

If you do hang up, the city says an operator will call you back.

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