Wireless phones can pose challenges for 911 dispatchers
In case of emergency, call 911.
That phrase is etched in people’s minds at an early age. Callers take for granted that their call will be answered in seconds and that help will arrive in minutes.
Tips for 911 calling
Usually emergency responders do arrive in minutes. But the process of dispatching them is not that simple — at least not as simple as it used to be.
“Prior to wireless phones, when someone called 911 they were calling from a land line,” said Plumas County Deputy Administrative Sheriff Mike Grant. “You had to have a physical address to have a phone.”
That address would allow 911 dispatchers to quickly point emergency responders in the right direction, even if the caller was disoriented and couldn’t provide the address.
The introduction of cellphones made the dispatchers’ job more complicated. Emergency personnel had to rely on the callers — who were often distressed — to accurately provide their location.
According to recent statistics, 70 percent of calls to 911 are from wireless phones. In Plumas County, 5,500 land lines have been dropped since 2007. Most of those people now use wireless phones exclusively.
Even though wireless phones produced since 2007 are equipped with global positioning systems, the GPS isn’t as accurate in rural areas as it is in a city.
If someone calls 911 on a pre-2007 cellphone, it can pose a challenge for 911 dispatchers and emergency responders — especially if the call gets cut off.
“In cities there are hundreds of cell towers, so it is easy to come up with a good location of a call,” Grant said. “In rural areas it doesn’t work well. There might be one tower or maybe two.”
Sometimes the only information dispatchers have is the approximate distance the caller was from the nearest tower. Dispatchers can tell which side of the tower the call came from, but that might only narrow the location to a 30-square-mile area — oftentimes the area is much larger.
If a 911 caller using a wireless hangs up or gets cut off before a dispatcher can confirm his or her location, finding that person can be challenging.
Dispatchers at the sheriff’s office or California Highway Patrol will call the number back if they have it in an attempt to “pin” the caller’s location. But even that can leave a wide margin of error.
Responding to every 911 call
Sheriff’s Dispatch Supervisor Becky Grant said every 911 call that gets cut off gets a follow-up from an officer or dispatcher.
“Even if the caller said it was an accident or a pocket-dial, our policy is to check them out,” she said. “We’ve had some very valid (dropped) calls that we responded to and checked them out, and thank God we did. Not all agencies do this. I’m glad that we are able to, at this point at least.”
She said some victims of domestic violence will deny placing a 911 call.
But checking up on every call can be time-consuming. Becky Grant said dispatchers usually have about 30 seconds to determine which emergency responders should be notified. If they aren’t exactly sure where the call came from, they might send the wrong fire department, for example, wasting time and resources.
She said some accidental 911 callers are annoyed when they get a follow-up call. Many of the callers simply sat on their phone, prompting the automatic call.
She said more people are using cheap “throw-away” phones that can be purchased at many stores. These phones are not “initialized,” meaning the user doesn’t have a contract for service with a wireless provider.
If someone using a throw-away phone gets disconnected during a 911 call, the dispatcher will not have the phone number and can’t call back.
Even though newer (phase-II) phones are equipped with a global-positioning chip, some users choose to deactivate the GPS. Doing that essentially turns a 2013 phone into an old (pre-2007) phase-I phone.
“And tracking down someone with a phase-I phone can be like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Mike Grant said.
He encouraged people to not deactivate the GPS, and also to activate the “911 callback” feature if the phone has one.
Mike Grant said that the 911 system is more complicated than ever because calls are coming from more and more systems that promise users instant emergency response.
Some of the examples are OnStar in cars, LifeAlert at home, personal panic buttons and roadside assistance.
These calls go to call centers and must travel through various emergency service gateways before reaching a local 911 dispatcher.
As a result, dispatchers have been adapting to new technology. Their 30-second window for making a decision is now filled with more tasks. It’s a long way from the days when a caller’s home phone number and address would appear on a screen.
Mike Grant also encouraged people using land lines to make sure their local carrier lists their correct address. He said the address should match the one on the house so emergency responders can easily find the right place.
Many 911 dispatch centers in cities are set up to receive texts and video. Plumas County doesn’t have that capability yet. But it will eventually.