Phone flaw caused police to miss fire alert

13.10.2020 - 12:12
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 Mynd: Hjalti Haraldsson - rúv
Iceland’s most senior police officer says a design flaw in the 112 emergency telephone service has now been fixed. The flaw meant that a call about a burning camper van was not answered and police did not respond until nearly 12 hours later. A man died in the fire.

Sigríður Björk Guðjónsdóttir, State police chief, regrets the incident and says work is underway to make sure it can never happen again: “I want to start by offering deepest sympathy to the relatives over the terrible accident that occurred there. We have spent the day trying to find out what happened. It is, as is usually the case with mistakes, that there are many conspiring elements.” 

The call from a passer-by in South Iceland was answered by a 112 operator and redirected to the State police switchboard. The phone rang for around one minute and then the caller gave up. 

Sigríður Björk says that all data on the call then vanished from the system. She says the State police switchboard deals with 70,000 calls a year and usually picks up after 8.4 seconds, on average. 

In cases where calls are missed, they are usually saved to a waiting list and somebody calls the informant back. It has since been revealed that this back up system was not registering numbers to be called back when the system was under the greatest strain—as was the case on Friday night. 

That flaw in the system was fixed yesterday evening. Sigríður Björk says emergency services are also now working to reduce the number of calls that are transferred to other departments and increase the number dealt with by the operator who first answers. 

South Iceland police believe the fire in the camper van was an accident. Officers investigating at around midday on Saturday discovered the charred remains of a man in his thirties and of two dogs. The man has not been formally identified, but police believe they know his identity. The man is believed to have lived in the vehicle for several years in locations around South Iceland and the capital. 

Police have interviewed ten witnesses on local farms who did not notice anything wrong until Saturday morning, when the police were called for a second time. 

South Iceland police chief Oddur Árnason (pictured above) says this is the fourth fatal camper van or caravan fire in the region in ten years and that they are typically very fierce, very fast fires. He believes that if people do not get out within a minute or so, their chances of survival are minimal—adding that he believes the fire would have proven fatal even if the initial call had been picked up. 

The identity of the caller on Friday night is unknown. 

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Alexander Elliott
Project manager
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