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Long Beach 911 cell calls lag

September 08, 2008|Rich Connell | Times Staff Writer

Kyon Salaam and his mother were pulled to the street corner in their north Long Beach neighborhood by a violent crash. Two cars had slammed together in rush hour traffic. Assessing the scene, Salaam instinctively punched 911 into his cellphone -- and got a recording.

He hung up and dialed again. Stuck listening to the same message, he waited, concerned about a middle-age woman in one car who appeared hurt.

"She was scared . . . she couldn't turn off her engine," recalled Salaam, 25, a care worker at a home for the disabled.

His mother hurried back to her nearby condo, dialed 911 on a land-line phone and quickly got through to city dispatchers.

Salaam said he held on minute after minute, and finally gave up on his call after Long Beach police and fire units arrived and took the injured woman away. "It was crazy," he recalled recently. "It could have been a life-or-death situation."

Long Beach, the state's fifth biggest city, with roughly 492,000 residents, promotes itself as a major draw for conventions, tourism and night life. Recently, it has earned another, less-heralded distinction: It is the largest Southern California city not directly answering wireless 911 calls.

Instead, every month, several thousand cellular 911 calls like Salaam's are routed first to a California Highway Patrol communications center north of downtown Los Angeles. Calls that get through and involve Long Beach emergencies are then transferred back to the city's police dispatch center.

It's a detour that can be risky when seconds matter, and one that the vast majority of cities in the state have eliminated in recent years.

The CHP's Los Angeles call center is one of the busiest in the state. Recent improvements have reduced wait times, but on average this year they have been 46 seconds, when state guidelines call for at least 90% of 911 calls to be answered in 10 seconds or less. Some callers are stuck on hold for several minutes, records show.

By Salaam's estimate, he tried to get through for close to 30 minutes during the incident in June. Records of the call could not be traced, but the longest wait time logged in that period was about eight minutes, according to an official with the CHP's Los Angeles call center.

However, the official noted that when Salaam hung up, he would have gone to the back of the line of waiting calls.

The delays caused by the roundabout route are a holdover from an era when mobile phones were mounted in cars and used mostly along highways. Now cellphones are ubiquitous and are used to make the majority of 911 calls, including a growing share that require a response from local police and rescue agencies.

Patching 911 calls from cellphones through the CHP creates a bottleneck, Long Beach officials acknowledge. But they have balked at answering the calls directly, fearing the added workload could overwhelm city dispatchers, slow response times and exacerbate the city's $17-million budget shortfall.

"Our Police Department has real concerns about the impact on the services it provides," said Reginald Harrison, deputy city manager. The city doesn't want residents "moving from one queuing line with the state to another queuing line with Long Beach," he said.

Officials already weighing closure of the city's central library because of budget concerns say they need time to study how many more operators would be needed to handle the additional 911 calls. A possible merger of police and fire dispatch centers and creation of a multi-city fire dispatch center in Long Beach also must be considered.

But regional authorities are pressing Long Beach to move ahead quickly. They point to other jurisdictions -- including Los Angeles, Pasadena, Torrance and the county Sheriff's Department -- that are managing their own wireless 911 calls without major difficulties.

One concern, Long Beach officials say, is that no one can say for sure how many additional calls the city will get.

The CHP sends the city the first cellphone call it receives for emergencies requiring a response by Long Beach authorities. Then the state dispatchers tell any additional callers -- and there often are many -- that the emergency has been reported.

All of those calls would be shifted directly to Long Beach, Harrison noted. "Someone has to answer" them, he said. By some estimates, total emergency calls could increase up to 35% and require several additional dispatchers.

The transition has been a challenge for some cities.

After the Los Angeles Police Department began taking wireless calls in 2006, delays grew significantly, exceeding state standards for several months. The department received three to four times as many cellular calls as the CHP had been transferring, said LAPD Lt. Diljeet Singh. Wireless calls now make up more than half the roughly 2 million 911 calls the agency receives every year, he said.

The city gradually adjusted to the added call load, as well as new computer systems, and now is nearing compliance with state standards again, Singh said.

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