Sloppy dispatchers protected by political patronage. Million-dollar software that crashes, putting dozens of emergency callers on hold. "Victims" who call 911 to complain about their Subway sandwich or their kid's refusal to go to school.
Such scenarios are part of a recent spate of delays, mix-ups, and breakdowns plaguing the nation's 911 system, sparking debate from San Francisco to Atlanta over the capacity of America's "first responders" – the calm-voiced dispatchers – to deal with emergencies quickly.
The problems come at a critical time for the nation's 40-year-old 911 network. Overall, better training, technological advancements, and increased post-9/11 funding have improved emergency response, saving many lives.
But outdated or mismatched equipment is in some cases hampering the ability of dispatchers to respond efficiently. And new technologies such as texting and video phones – New York this week began accepting text messages and video to their 911 centers – promise to put even more stress on the controlled chaos of the emergency switchboard.
"Our 911 challenges are symptomatic of an increasingly complex society where a heavy reliance on technology is at least partly to blame," says Mike Williams, the president of The Abaris Group, an emergency response consultancy in Walnut Creek, Calif. "When 911 calls fall apart, bad things happen."
Rick Jones, operational director at the National Emergency Number Association in Arlington, Va., says the system has generally improved. "However, because communications in general is going through a major transition ... we have to make an evolution into almost a totally new system."
Uptick in mistakes?
Gary Allen, editor of DISPATCH Monthly Magazine, says he has seen a marked increase this year of sometimes deadly mistakes directly traceable to the critical minutes that follow an emergency call.
In Oceanside, Calif., a 21-year veteran dispatcher failed to send officers to investigate a call from an apartment where a murder victim was later found. In Charlotte, N.C., a billiard hall owner said he waited seven minutes on hold this spring before getting through to 911 to report he'd been shot in the leg.
In Sedgwick County, Kan., fire chief Ron Blackwell said in August that he's "increasingly concerned" about a new $1.5 million computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system. Firefighters complain it isn't reliably alerting them to incidents.
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.
"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.