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911 confusion delayed hiker's rescue

Crews were sent to wrong site when teen fell to death

POSTED: June 27, 2008 5:01 a.m.


If you experience a medical emergency while hiking in the Chattahoochee National Forest, don’t assume that rescuers will be able to reach you quickly.

When 18-year-old Sautee resident Elena Rae Shaw fell off Mount Yonah on June 7, it became clear that the 911 system doesn’t always work in a wilderness situation.

Shaw was hiking with several friends on the slick granite cliffs of Yonah when she lost her footing. She tumbled hundreds of feet down the mountain, crashing through trees and sustaining massive injuries.

A member of the hiking party ran downhill to the trailhead parking lot, where he was able to borrow a cell phone and call 911.

But White County Dispatch initially sent emergency vehicles not to Mount Yonah, a distinctive 3,156-foot dome north of Cleveland, but to Anna Ruby Falls, which is north of Helen. The two sites are about 12 miles apart and bear no resemblance to each other.

David Carswell, co-manager of the visitor center at Anna Ruby, said his employees were puzzled when they got a call from dispatch about someone being injured at the falls.

"If something had happened here, we would have known about it," he said. "There are always people up at the falls, and somebody would have reported it."

The emergency vehicles stood by as officials tried to figure out where the injured person was, or if she even existed. Then another 911 call came in, about 15 minutes after the first one.

"The first reporting party called back, and we were told that they had given us the wrong information," said David Murphy, director of the White County Emergency Management Agency.

But why would someone who had just hiked to the top of Mount Yonah say they were at Anna Ruby Falls?
"They were not from around here. They were visiting the young lady and were not familiar with the area," Murphy said.

He said the young man looked around at the trailhead for anything that might help him identify exactly where he was. He apparently saw a sign that said "Anna Ruby Falls Road."

"He said, ‘I was on the Mount Yonah trail,’ and then he said, ‘Here’s the address: Anna Ruby Falls Road,’" Murphy said.

Why didn’t dispatch use the reference to Mount Yonah as a clue to the caller’s whereabouts?

"Mount Yonah could have been a street name," said Murphy, noting that White County has many place names that include the word "Yonah," and some are not located near the mountain.

Still, the dispatcher tried to ask questions that could corroborate what the caller was saying.

"911 did ask him, ‘Did you go through Helen to get there?’" Murphy said. "And he said yes."

The initial 911 call was made at about 1:30 p.m., and it was almost 3 p.m. before rescuers found Shaw in woods. She died before they could get her into a helicopter for transport to a hospital.

Shaw’s injuries were so severe that the delay in reaching her probably would not have made a difference in the outcome. But the confusion that surrounded her rescue does raise questions about how emergency workers can respond when a location isn’t clearly marked.

"It’s frustrating when (911) operators can’t help somebody," Murphy said. "We get calls from people who say they’re on an unmarked dirt road in the national forest. People have the assumption that if you call 911, they’ll be able to find you."

He said White County does have enhanced 911, in which the caller’s address automatically shows up on the operator’s screen. But that service only works with a land line phone.

In cases where the caller is in a remote, undeveloped area, there’s not much that the operator can do except try to ask the right questions.

"We’ve reviewed that whole call and looked at whether the dispatchers could have done anything different," Murphy said.

"We’re going to do some additional training of our 911 operators so they’ll know where all the trailheads are," he said. "We’re going to get them more familiar with the area and actually take them to these sites."

Murphy said as people are driving to places within the national forest, they should try to remember what landmarks they passed. That will give them some identifying information in case they need to call for help.

But the question that no one has yet been able to answer in the Elena Shaw case is, Why was there a sign at the Mount Yonah trailhead that apparently referred to "Anna Ruby Falls Road"?

Karen McKenzie, spokeswoman for the Chattahoochee National Forest, said she is not able to discuss the details of the case right now.

"Forest Service law enforcement is still investigating, as they do when there is any fatality on Forest Service land," she said.


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