Longform

MISCUE 911

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"American Express is supposed to be state-of-the-art corporate America," says Brian, a convenience-store marketing director who moved back to Phoenix from Kansas City after the tragedy. "How could they do such a blatantly erroneous thing? Our love for Mom is the same as always. But seeing her living like she lives hurts the heart alive."
Long-term disability insurance and other policies continue to cover most of Sarah Dugan's medical expenses, but her husband suspects bankruptcy may be in the future. His day-to-day struggles with Sarah, however, keep him from worrying too much about what may lie ahead.

"The hardest times," Joe Dugan explains in a whisper, "are when she blurts something out of nowhere, like, 'Let me die, please.' It's like a part of her knows at times what's going on."
@rule:
@body:A company's blocking 911 from its employees is almost unheard-of in Phoenix and around the nation, say emergency-response experts contacted by New Times.

The system developed by Motorola is typical of the Phoenix area's largest employers. That firm trains and retrains employees to call its on-site Emergency Response Team in medical and other emergencies.

But, unlike those at American Express in 1990, Motorola also allows its workers direct access to 911. And when a Motorola employee dials 911, the call also automatically alerts company security personnel, providing fast on- and off-site access.

But for a firm to shut off 911 from its employees?
Fujitsu Business Communications Systems saleswoman Kate McCavitt said in a recent court deposition she'd never encountered such a request during a decade in the business until she met with American Express on February 28, 1990.

The Phoenix meeting took place a few months before the company moved more than 500 employees--including Sarah Dugan and her quality-control unit--into WROC II. Fujitsu signed a $424,823 contract with American Express to install a phone system in the building.

American Express' Don Harris testified in his deposition that company security personnel had expressed concern over "fat-finger dialing," or accidental calls to 911. That, Harris said, had led to the decision to shut off 911 access to employees.

Kate McCavitt testified she'd never heard of fat-fingering as a major concern for businesses. She says she told Harris that Fujitsu could easily rig a phone system to call-forward 911 calls to American Express security--similar to the Motorola model.

But she alleges Harris was adamant about wanting 911 completely out of the reach of employees.

"He said, 'No 911. Period,'" McCavitt recounted under oath. "He said it was necessary that people at American Express dial 1414--the security offices--because American Express is a very big place with many entrances. . . ."
In a deposition June 10, Fujitsu technician Tana Velez recalled her surprise at American Express' no-911 request. "Nobody wants to change 911," she said, "because that's how everybody is trained from the time they're born to reach emergency services."

But Fujitsu did as instructed, cutting off 911 to the employees at the new WROC II building in the spring of 1990. On April 2, 1990, company manager of security Ed Kurowski issued a one-page memo to the building's employees informing them about 1414.

"If fire or any emergency requiring assistance occurs at this site," it said, "the on-duty security officers will call 911." But the memo didn't say American Express had moved 911 out of the reach of its workers.

"I assumed you were supposed to contact security, but I also assumed you can call 911," says Sarah's onetime co-worker Sandra Cordes. "There was only the one security guard in the building most of the time. And you couldn't reach him."
Don Harris recalled how the firm anticipated its employees would remember to dial 1414 in case of emergency. He insisted, for one thing, that American Express had attached 1414 stickers to every phone in WROC II before Sarah Dugan collapsed in November 1990.

But American Express' own documents refute Harris on that point: A company memo obtained by New Times indicates 142 phones in WROC II didn't have the informational stickers on them on November 2, 1990. The document was dated November 4--two days after Sarah collapsed.

Sixty-six of those phones were located on the second floor of WROC II, in the immediate vicinity of Sarah's desk.

Some high-level officials at American Express have admitted they didn't know about the squelching of 911 before Sarah Dugan collapsed. Gayle Berry--Sarah's supervisor in 1990 and now a vice president of customer service--also revealed in a deposition that even today, she doesn't have a 1414 sticker on her office phone.

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@body:A lawsuit filed last October by the Dugans against American Express and several other defendants alleges the company's blocking of 911 led to the severity of Sarah's brain damage.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin