SAN DIEGO — Officials of San Diego's 911 emergency telephone system failed to make the service accessible to deaf callers until months after they were required to do so under state law, according to documents obtained by The Times.
The documents, including memos by telephone company employees who discovered the problem, indicate that the city resisted implementing the new system as late as June 24, 1986, only weeks before a San Diego woman died after her deaf husband's calls to 911 went unanswered.
Asked about the documents, the police officer in charge of San Diego's 911 system acknowledged this week that the city did not train emergency operators in the new procedures for months after Pacific Bell began promoting the service to the deaf.
Police Lt. Curt Munro blamed the delay on mail delivery, saying that instructions and training materials from the state were "misdirected."
"There was a delay in us understanding that we were supposed to have been preparing for the 911 TDD (telecommunications device for the deaf) use," Munro said. "After the law was implemented, there was a delay."
Mary Bell Shufeldt, 72, died July 17, 1986, after a 911 operator hung up on her husband's calls. Police officials have said that the operator mistook the signal of the Shufeldts' telecommunications device for the deaf for someone playing with the phone.
The Shufeldt family is suing the dispatch operator, the city, county and state, and Pacific Bell and its parent company. The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in May, accuses them of negligence that allegedly resulted in Mrs. Shufeldt's death.
The incident has raised concerns in San Diego and statewide about the reliability of the 911 system for deaf and hearing-impaired people, many of whom rely on telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDDs) to communicate by telephone and in emergencies.
Under California law, all agencies operating 911 systems were to have made the systems accessible to TDDs by Jan. 1, 1986. In the past, they had used special, seven-digit emergency numbers, such as 233-DEAF, the number used in San Diego.
The availability of 911 for the deaf had been promoted in early 1986 in brochures mailed by the phone company to all TDD users. Similarly, San Diego's June, 1986, directory of city offices and telephone numbers listed 911 as the only emergency number for the deaf.
The documents, obtained through a source familiar with the Shufeldt case, consist of memos written by Pacific Bell employees and a letter to state officials about persistent problems with the San Diego system in the months before Mrs. Shufeldt's death.
Among the documents is an account of an April, 1986, test by a Pacific Bell employee of the 911 system, using a TDD. The test was part of a statewide program to check 911 accessibility for the deaf. The call came after a March 5 test call to San Diego found "no 911 TDD access."
After the April 18 call, the tester reported that dispatch supervisor Gil O'Dell "did not know about 911 procedure for TDDs" and assumed that the deaf would use the old number. O'Dell said the operators had not been trained in taking 911 calls from the deaf, the documents state.
Pacific Bell procedures required that the tester then re-explain the new system.
Then, on June 24, according to the documents, a tester reported an additional conversation with O'Dell. According to the Pacific Bell notes, O'Dell said he preferred that deaf people use the old number because adapting the 911 system was "time-consuming and awkward."
He said he was unaware that the state was requiring access to 911, the report said.
O'Dell was off work on Tuesday and Wednesday and police officials said they could not reach him for comment.
Munro, however, blamed the problems on the mail.
"One problem we experienced . . . was the fact that we were not receiving 911 program mail. . . . We had not received any of the instructions."
As a result, Munro said, the division did not learn about the change in the law until months after it went into effect. Nor had it received the training tapes mailed out by the state to teach dispatch operators how to handle 911 TDD calls, he said.
The tapes demonstrate the distinctive, high-pitched beeping sound made by TDDs over a telephone line. That sound is a signal to transfer the call to a dispatch console equipped with another TDD in order to communicate with the caller.
Munro said he first learned of the new law when the state's 911 program manager, Bill Brandenburg, visited San Diego--perhaps in March or April, 1986. He said he then asked Brandenburg to re-send the implementation order and training materials.
Munro said he could not recall precisely when the department learned of the change but said he believed that it was shortly before the Shufeldt incident.
Nevertheless, Munro insisted that 911 operators knew all along how to handle calls from the deaf. He said a TDD had been used in the office for seven-digit calls for more than a decade and operators had been trained in its use.
Mrs. Shufeldt died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease after collapsing in her San Diego home. Her husband Jay, who was 74, has said that he tried at least three times to call 911 for emergency help but was unable to get through.
Finally, Shufeldt reached his daughter, who is not deaf. She called 911 and got through. But by the time paramedics arrived at the downtown San Diego home, Mrs. Shufeldt was dead.
An internal Police Department investigation concluded in August that a 911 operator failed to recognize the signal transmitted by Shufeldts' machine. "She thought that children were playing with the phone" and hung up, a department investigator said.