Teen's death sparks calls to investigate Cincinnati's 911 call center

Following Kyle Plush's death, at least one Cincinnati City Council member wants Hamilton County to absorb the city's emergency response system

click to enlarge Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac says CPD has launched a full internal investigation into the events that led to Kyle Plush's death.
Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac says CPD has launched a full internal investigation into the events that led to Kyle Plush's death.

The accidental death of a teen in a Seven Hills School parking lot has called attention to what some officials say are deeper issues with Cincinnati’s 911 call center.

Cincinnati’s call center has experienced a number of problems — understaffing, outages and alleged management issues — in the past few years, officials say, and the death this week of 16-year-old Kyle Plush should serve as a wakeup call.

“Something went wrong here,” Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac said at an April 12 news conference discussing details of Plush’s death. “And we need to find out why we weren't able to provide help." 

It’s unclear exactly how Plush remained undiscovered for hours despite two 911 calls that sent geolocation information to dispatchers. The dispatcher involved in Plush’s second 911 call, Amber Smith, is on administrative leave and Eliot has promised a full internal investigation. The chief said he believes vital information may not have been transmitted to officers, either due to technical difficulties or human error.

The Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office will also investigate Plush’s death, according to a news release by Prosecutor Joe Deters, and is looking for relevant experts to help in that investigation.

Plush died April 10 after the third-row seat in his Honda Odyssey van overturned and pinned him while he was trying to grab tennis equipment from the van’s rear compartment.

Plush eventually suffocated from the weight of the bench seat, Hamilton County Coroner’s office said after an autopsy.

Before he died, he presumably used the voice command function on his phone to call 911 twice. The first call came at 3:15 p.m. and dispatchers were able to direct Cincinnati Police Officers Brian Brazile and Edsel Osborn to the parking lot where Plush reported he was trapped. The officers, who arrived about 10 minutes after the call, said they could not locate Plush, despite a description of his vehicle.

Plush made his second call while officers were looking for him.

"I'm trapped inside my gold Honda Odyssey van,” Plush said in that call. “In the parking lot of Seven Hills Hillsdale. Send officers immediately. I'm almost dead."

CPD says the dispatcher never gave that information to officers, however.

A Hamilton County Sherriff’s deputy at the scene to direct traffic found a van in the parking lot. He looked inside and told dispatchers that he didn’t see anyone in the vehicle. CPD officials have said they think it must have been Plush's vehicle, but the Sheriff's office says that's not true.

A family member found Plush in the van not breathing about 9 p.m. that night. Plush was already dead by that time. Those at the scene placed several more 911 calls. Officers Brazile and Osborn again responded to those calls.

“We had a run there earlier today,” one of the two told dispatchers. “We think somebody is playing pranks.”

Plush’s death isn’t the first time the 911 call center has been under scrutiny, and Cincinnati elected officials want the incident to be a springboard to improving what they say is a troubled department.

In an April 12 statement, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said it was still unclear if there was wrongdoing on the part of the city, but pressed for a deeper investigation into how the city’s Emergency Call Center is operating.

“I applaud Police Chief Eliot Isaac for launching an investigation on the specific issues that happened Tuesday,” he said. “However, separate from this incident, the problems of management, supervision and technology have been reported at the 911 center for years. I have been told by the administration that problems were being resolved through Cincy Stat and other efforts. This tragedy may ultimately suggest the problems have not been resolved or that not enough changes have been made. We owe the Plush family and the public a detailed and comprehensive explanation of everything that has been done, recommendations made and actions taken at the 911 center that could have had any bearing on the practices that may have contributed to this tragedy.”

Some Cincinnati City Council members would also like to see changes. Councilman Chris Seelbach said April 12 that he will introduce legislation that would merge the city’s call center with Hamilton County’s emergency response system.

“Having listened for years to the frustration of many surrounding the challenges within our 911 system, it is long past time for a change,” Seelbach said in a statement outlining his proposal. “Many of us have talked about the need to share services with other governmental agencies. My proposal includes directing the City administration to start immediate discussions with Hamilton County leadership to prepare a plan to save taxpayer dollars, investing in a system that is reliable, and ensuring employees have the same rights they currently receive. The plan should include how much will it cost to absorb our system, how we can ensure workers retain their labor representation, how can we make sure CPD & CFD receive accurate information faster, and how can we provide a better product to all.”