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Hello? Hello?: Democrats Blame Corker for Missed 911 Calls

A DSCC ad claims Bob Corker's "failures as Mayor" led to 31,000 unanswered emergency calls in Chattanooga.

September 6, 2006

Modified: September 6, 2006

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Summary

Republicans cry foul over a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee TV ad attacking Republican Senate candidate Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga. It said, "Thanks to Bob Corker's failures as Mayor, more than thirty-one-thousand 911 calls went unanswered."

We find that the 31,000 number may be a bit high, but the rate of unanswered calls did get worse while Corker was mayor, reaching nearly 15 per cent in his last full year in office. Tens of thousands of emergency calls did go unanswered.

Analysis

The DSCC released the ad Sep 1, broadcasting it on Tennessee television stations and on a DSCC-run website called thetruthaboutbobcorker.com. It opens with a menacing house alarm. An announcer says later that “thanks to Bob Corker's failures as Mayor, more than thirty-one thousand  911 calls went unanswered. . . .And now Bob Corker wants to be in the Senate. In a time when America 's security has never mattered more. ”

DSCC Ad: “Answer”

(Sound FX: A house alarm.  A phone being dialed.  A dial tone.
Announcer: In case of emergency, dial nine-one-one. But what if no one was there?  Thanks to Bob Corker's failures as Mayor, more than thirty-one-thousand 9-1-1 calls went unanswered. Thirty-one-thousand Tennesseans. Thirty-one-thousand calls to 9-1-1. But no one answered the phone."
(On screen: Chattanooga Times Free Press, 3/30/06)
Announcer: And, now, Bob Corker wants to be in the Senate. In a time when America 's security has never mattered more. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.
 

Blatantly Untrue?

Corker's campaign manager Ben Mitchell called the ad "blatantly untrue" and said "they should do the right thing and take it off the air.” He reasoned that the 31,000 figure refers to the year 2005, and that Corker left office April 18 of that year. Republicans even threatened legal action against stations running the ad. "If your station does not stop airing this advertisement after gaining knowledge that it contains false and misleading statements, you are subjecting your station to potential liability," the National Republican Senatorial Committee's general counsel William J. McGinley wrote in a letter to stations.

Corker and the NRSC have a point –  but it's a small one. Whether Corker can fairly be held accountable for all of 2005 is a matter of opinion, and depends on how quickly his successor could be expected to change the deteriorating system he inherited from Corker. The ad can't fairly be called "false" because it attributes the 31,000 missed calls to Corker's "failures as mayor," and doesn't claim they were all missed while he was actually in office.

Who is Responsible?

In fact, official figures  show that a large number of emergency calls to the city's police department also went unanswered earlier in Corker's tenure as well, including 23,132 unanswered calls in 2003. We obtained the figures from the Hamilton County Emergency 911 Communications District, which includes Chattanooga. They show the actual number of abandoned (unanswered) calls in 2005 was 30,891, slightly less than the "more than 31,000" reported in earlier news accounts.

The situation worsened significantly under Corker's tenure. The rate of unanswered calls rose from 8.8 percent of all 911 calls in 2001, the year he took office, to 14.9 percent in 2004, his last full year as mayor, and 16.9 per cent in 2005, according to reports in the Chattanooga Times Free Press which the Corker campaign does not dispute.

The Times Free Press also in March quoted the city's former police chief Jimmie Dotson  as saying, "I asked for communications officers in every budget, especially under the Corker administration, and each time it was denied. . . . (We) spent many, many, many hours battling the Corker administration asking for communications officers." Corker's campaign manager says the mayor added two communications officers to the 911 operation, bringing the total to 68.

A Final Quibble

We can't resist quibbling with the DSCC on one point. The ad refers to "31,000 Tennesseans," as though each unanswered call was made by a separate person. That's improbable. We think it more likely that many whose calls weren't answered the first time kept calling until somebody answered, often resulting in multiple unanswered calls from the same person. In any case, the ad would have been perfectly accurate to say that while Corker was mayor "more than 23,000 emergency calls went unanswered in a single year," and equally accurate to say "one in seven calls went unanswered" in Corker's last full year in office.

- By Brooks Jackson & Emi Kolawole

Sources

Hamilton County (TN) 911 Emergency Communications District, "Chattanooga Police Department, Abandon 9-1-1 Calls for 2003-2006 ," supplied to FactCheck.org, 6 Sep 2006.

Davis, Michael.  "Ad Blames Corker for Missed 911 Calls,"  The Chattanooga Times Free Press.  2 Sept 2006.

LaRoe, Ginny.  “20 Percent of 911 calls dropped last week,” The Chattanooga Times Free Press.  28, March 2006.

LaRoe, Ginny.   “Ex-Police Chief Blasts Corker on 911 funds,” The Chattanooga Times Free Press.  30 March 2006. 

La Roe, Ginny.  “City Seeks Better 911 Response,”  The Chattanooga Times Free Press. 26 March 2006.