Delays, mistakes plague 911 system
More calls and new technologies have increased pressure on emergency responders.
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And citizens don't always help. Up to 80 percent of 911 calls in the US are non-emergencies. In Hayward, Calif., police charged a man in February for making 27,000 false calls to 911. California this year passed a law that levies up to $250 fines against even legitimate callers who call more than once for the same emergency.Skip to next paragraph
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"These incidents are very obvious in a tragic way, and you try to figure out if it's technology related ... personnel related like long shifts and fatigue, or is it something systemic?" says Mr. Allen on the phone from Berkeley, Calif. "As people come to rely on the 911 system and that phone they have in their pocket, it becomes even more critical that the technology works and that the person who answers the call handles it correctly."
In cellphone age, endless calls
Against the backdrop of disasters like 9/11 and hurricane Katrina, of thickening traffic congestion on the coasts, and of ubiquitous cellphone use, Americans are finding more reasons to call 911.
Total volume of calls to US dispatch centers has increased from 180 million to 240 million in the past five years. Up to half of those calls now come from cellphones, often in situations where callers can't give dispatchers a clue as to where they are.
"Our exposure to hazards in the United States is going up over time due to increasing population, especially in vulnerable regions, as well as factors such as a lack of investment in infrastructure," says sociologist Carter Butts, who studies emergency response at the University of California at Irvine.
To keep up, politicians and policy-makers are trying to upgrade to new technologies, most of them proprietary, while balancing tight municipal budgets. But glitches with new technology – ranging from voice quality to interoperability between old and new radio systems – stress dispatchers' ability to keep calm and improvise as lives hang in the balance.
"We're not allowed that same field of error as far as, when you make a mistake, that you can say, 'You just made a mistake, someone died, but that's okay,' and it's not," says Jim Jones, a dispatcher at TriCom regional dispatch in St. Charles, Ill. "Our greatest fear, however, is our job being hampered by technology."
A bill signed into law by President Bush July 23 created the nation's first national 911 oversight board. It's intended in part to move the national system from analog to Internet Protocol (IP), which is less expensive and capable of handling new technology standards.
Dispatch authorities "are very aware that they need to have interoperable systems in place, so [the bill's $40 million "seed money" provision] is a key linchpin here, especially when it comes to local response," says Dana Lichtenberg, legislative director for Rep. Bart Gordon (D) of Tennessee, who sponsored the bill.
Despite the problems, Mr. Gordon says he's confident the system can be improved. "This is landmark legislation and it's going to save lives," he says.