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Cellphones swamping 911 system

Users are encountering lost calls and lengthy waits. Officials say it's better to summon help on a land line.

August 26, 2007|Robert J. Lopez and Rich Connell | Times Staff Writers

An explosion in calls from cellular phones has overwhelmed critical parts of California's 911 system, resulting in hundreds of thousands of lost calls and lengthy waits to reach dispatchers even as crimes or potentially deadly emergencies unfold.

Wireless 911 calls statewide have jumped roughly tenfold since 1990, to more than 8 million last year. Cell calls now make up the majority of all 911 calls, and key emergency agencies are struggling to adapt.

The problems are aggravated by call surges -- such as when multiple motorists call in about the same accident -- staffing shortages at 911 dispatch centers, and technological hurdles. Cell calls are more easily interrupted or lost and take longer to handle, officials say, reducing the number of calls each dispatcher can field.

Many people are unaware of such deficiencies until they desperately need help.

Elementary school counselor Brad Edwards said he waited eight harrowing minutes last year before a dispatcher picked up his cell call about a boy who had collapsed on a Los Angeles schoolyard and begun foaming from the mouth.

"The fire station is just a few blocks away. I could have run there faster than it took them to help me," said Edwards, adding that the boy survived.

"I had no idea there were these kind of problems," he said.

Some officials say that, in general, a person is better off calling for help on a land line. But because the same dispatchers answer both types of calls, delays can spread across the system, affecting land line callers as well.

The difficulty in pinpointing the location of cellphone callers has long been recognized. A Times review, however, found that the system often bogs or breaks down even before a call reaches a dispatcher. The newspaper reviewed data on state and local 911 calls and CHP complaint logs, and interviewed public safety officials and callers.

Hardest hit are callers routed to the California Highway Patrol, which for years received all wireless emergency calls and still handles nearly three-quarters of them.

Taking the brunt

The state says 90% of 911 calls should be answered in less than 10 seconds, a standard embraced by dispatch centers across the country. But at the CHP's two largest call centers, in Los Angeles and San Francisco, waits average more than five times that, according to data covering the first seven months of this year. The great majority of the calls came from cellphones.

Indeed, according to the agency's own statistics, about half of its dispatch centers statewide are failing to meet the national standard. Though 40 seconds either way may not sound crucial, every second counts when an assault is in progress or a child is choking.

In some instances, the waits are extraordinary. The longest waits through July -- an average of the greatest delays each month -- were 27 minutes in the Los Angeles area, more than 16 minutes in the Bay Area and 47 minutes in the Ventura area.

CHP officials blame, in part, the behavior of cellphone users. With the proliferation of such phones, they say, they are getting an increased proportion of non-emergency calls on the 911 line, asking, for instance, about traffic and weather conditions. Others call by mistake.

For whatever reason, nearly half the 911 calls to the CHP in the Los Angeles area through July this year were abandoned, meaning the caller gave up, was disconnected or hung up for another reason before reaching a dispatcher. The state target is 15%.

The CHP is not able to track how many abandoned calls were legitimate emergencies. But "even if it's 1% of those emergency calls," said CHP Assistant Chief Jon Lopey, "we're very concerned about it."

Such statistics deal only with the front end of the emergency response system. They do not reflect problems that can occur later in the dispatching process. For instance, after fielding a call, the CHP often transfers it to other police agencies, which may then have to transfer it to fire and rescue departments. Along the way, it may be necessary to conference in translators -- all of which adds time and complications.

Sharing the burden

To ease the load at the CHP, the stateDepartment of General Services is pushing to shift more cell calls directly to local public safety agencies. Already, more than 300 local agencies are directly taking wireless calls, including police departments in Torrance, Huntington Park, Inglewood and Irvine.

So far, according to the latest statewide data, these and most other local dispatch centers are meeting or exceeding the call-answering standard, in part because they have a much higher proportion of land line calls that can be handled more efficiently.

But one major exception is the Los Angeles Police Department, which began taking wireless calls early last year. Twice as many wireless 911 calls as predicted have flooded in. Wait times and abandoned call rates are at their worst levels in years. A staffing shortage and the challenges of adapting to a new computer system haven't helped.

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