The memory of a little girl who died after being shot in the head still haunts 911 emergency operator Norma Torres.
Two summers ago, an emergency call from a Spanish-speaking Hollywood resident came into the Los Angeles Police Department's 911 headquarters, four floors underground at City Hall.
No one knows exactly what time the domestic dispute call was made that night. No one is sure how long the caller, apparently one of the 11-year-old girl's relatives, had to wait for someone who spoke Spanish.
And while no one can say that faster service would have saved the girl's life, Torres and others say the tragedy underscores their belief that the city's overworked 911 system is especially poor at meeting the emergency needs of non-English-speaking residents.
Police communications officials acknowledge that on any given shift, only four operators are assigned specifically to handle calls from Spanish speakers.
And while the goal is to answer all 911 calls within nine seconds, some Spanish-speakers may wait more than 20 minutes to reach an operator who will understand how to help them in a time of emergency, officials say.
Eager to avoid tragedies in a region where hundreds of thousands of residents speak only Spanish or another language besides English, the City Council has directed the LAPD to move forward with immediate changes to the emergency response system. Those changes include:
* Hiring more bilingual 911 operators, known as police service representatives.
* Upgrading the bilingual system so that quality of service may be measured and calls may be prioritized the same as English-language calls.
* Exploring allegations of a hostile work environment for bilingual operators.
* Finding new ways to educate residents on the proper use of 911.
"The 911 service is a constant complaint that we get," said Councilman Richard Alarcon, who represents the largely Latino northeast San Fernando Valley and introduced the council action. "It cuts across all communities."
Torres, 30, a four-year veteran at answering emergency calls, said that by the time the Hollywood call was patched in to her and answered, all she could hear was a thumping sound on the other end.
It was learned later that the girl's mother ran out of their apartment frightened by a former lover who was coming after her carrying a gun. The man grabbed the girl, tried to force her to say where her mother went, and then, frustrated, shot her five times.
"The banging was the little girl's head against the wall," Torres said her eyes widening in disbelief. ". . . I think now that we're making changes I remember that."
Capt. Thomas D. Elfmont, commanding officer of the LAPD's communications division, said the 911 system is improving but needs more staff in order to service all callers properly.
Elfmont said there are 60 to 100 operators working the phones on any given shift, with up to 12 taking only 911 calls and up to four assigned specifically to handling calls from Spanish speakers. The rest may be responding to emergencies, routine calls ranging from home alarms to crime reports or helping officers in the field, so-called secondary calls, he said.
The division has had no increase in personnel during the past 10 years despite a 70% increase in calls during that time, Elfmont said.
"My position is that anything we can do to improve service is something that we want to do," Elfmont said. "We are short of personnel so there are times when we do not answer the calls as quickly as we would like."
Elfmont said the division currently answers 80% to 85% of all 911 calls within nine seconds of the first ring, while secondary calls normally are answered in about three or four minutes. The goal is to answer 100% of all 911 calls within nine seconds and all secondary calls within 20 to 30 seconds, he said.
During one recent night shift, the need for Spanish-speaking operators was evident as 911 and lower priority calls poured into the communications division.
Monolingual workers unable to understand callers quickly would try, \o7 "Habla espanol?\f7 " (Do you speak Spanish?) or \o7 "Un momento por favor\f7 " (One moment please).
Yvette Binns, 33, one operator doing her best to handle or transfer calls, said her year on the job has emphasized the need for more bilingual operators.
"They need it. We get a lot," she said, referring to non-English-speaking callers. "Me? I don't understand. I think there's a definite need."
Lillian Brock, a senior police service representative, said there has been an increase in non-English callers from all parts of the city.
"Our Spanish speakers are getting calls from all over," Brock said. "We probably could also use a Korean speaker."
The communications division, which received almost 4.9 million calls during 1994, was able to answer about 3.9 million of those calls, about 79%. Some callers hang up quickly, but the division's goal remains coming as close as possible to answering 100% of the calls.