Now is Not the Time to Change 911 System

By Pat McElroy   |   January 4, 2022

Last week I was forwarded a newsletter from the Montecito Association. I was struck by the recommendation to use the 10-digit phone number for the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s landline rather than 911 when reporting an emergency in Montecito, specifically Coast Village Road. Having dealt extensively with this issue during my career with Santa Barbara City Fire, I thought it might be useful to share some of what I learned and why I feel that this is a bad idea, especially regarding Fire and Emergency Medical dispatching.

In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Justice recommended the creation of a single number to report emergencies nationwide. 911 was selected as the number for the United States. It was a landline-based system that identified the address of the caller and First Responders were dispatched accordingly. It was a revolutionary change.

In 1973, Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the Warren 911 Assistance act into law and established California’s State Emergency Telephone number account. If you look carefully at your phone bill you will see this small tax for every phone. This account funds the Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP) or 911 dispatch centers throughout our state. California has over 350 such sites.

In a foreshadowing of what would occur in the 21st century, the ability to call 911 from a car or mobile phone was addressed in the 1970s for the relatively rare number of such devices. Because it was thought that these calls would originate from vehicles, these types of calls were sent primarily to the California Highway Patrol. And for decades that system was adequate. 

A seismic shift for the system occurred with the explosion of cell phones in the 21st century. By 2015, more than 250 million 911 calls were being made in the United States and 80% of those were originating from cell phones. Currently Californians call 911 more than 29 million times a year, 90% of these calls originate from a cell phone.

There are more than 300,000 wireless antennas in California. Each antenna is pre-designated to send any 911 call it receives to a specific PSAP. This technological explosion has had serious consequences for the nation’s 911 system. As recently as 2015, the California Highway Patrol’s 25 PSAPs still receives, and dispatches, 49% of California’s 911 calls.

What is not commonly known is that as a result of the switch from a landline-based system to cell phones, a 911 dispatcher currently does not know the location of a caller who is using a cell phone. This has made the dispatchers job, already very challenging, that much more difficult. It is a curious phenomenon in a world of Uber and so many other apps that have caller location as an operating principle. 

How does that impact us on the South Coast? Well, because highways 101, 192, and 154 are state highways, a tremendous amount of 911 cell phone calls are routed to the CHP call center in Ventura County. Because of that fateful decision from the 1970s when the number of “car phones” numbered in the thousands the same rules apply in a state where virtually every woman, man, and child uses a cell phone. 

Cell antennae do not have the ability to distinguish from calls originating from highways and calls that come from neighborhoods adjoining these highways. This is especially true in southern Santa Barbara County where our highways bisect our communities. This creates the possibility of negative outcome when calling during an emergency where the dispatcher no longer is provided your address because 90% of the time the call is being made from a wireless device.

Due to some tragic events that happened locally, your Fire Chiefs joined with then Assembly member Das Williams and his staff to craft and pass Assembly Bill 1564 to address auditing cell phone towers to switch calls from the CHP to local PSAPs if:

• The call originates from a location other than the freeway.

• The alternate routing is technologically and economically feasible.

• The alternative routing will benefit the public’s safety.

• It will result in 911 calls being routed to the responsible responding jurisdiction that covers the location of the call origination point.

The bill passed the Assembly and Senate unanimously and was signed into law by Governor Brown in 2016. This auditing is done regularly but the cell phone world continues its explosive growth and cell towers are constantly updating or being installed by the carriers. Occasionally tragic mistakes regarding caller location occur, but they are still the exception rather than the rule.

Why then do I feel that reversing course and going back to calling the 10-digit number for your local public safety agency is the wrong way to go? 

It is pretty simple: the 911 system is universally recognized as the best way to access emergency services. It is still the quickest way for you to get the possibly life-saving service you depend on. As you moved through your day, you may frequently cross jurisdictional lines you are unaware of, your cell phone is continually being picked up by a variety of antennae who will send your 911 call to the appropriate dispatch point more often than not. It would be challenging, if not impossible, for you to be aware of each of the 10-digit numbers of each jurisdiction you move through on a daily basis. Calling 911 is the best way to ensure that you get the help you need no matter where you are. Trying to use workarounds is ineffective and ultimately dangerous.

The best way to ensure that you get the appropriate response is to remember that, if you are calling 911 from a cell phone, the dispatcher, currently, does not know where you are calling from. Often you will be asked not “what is your emergency” but “where is your emergency.” Be prepared to give the best description of where you are calling from. The city, street, intersection, business name or home address. The dispatcher can then quickly get you the appropriate response headed your way.

Two things give me hope that, in Santa Barbara County, things are going to be improving quickly. The first is that NextGen 911 will soon be available. That will give your 911 dispatcher your location from your cell phone. This rollout, while delayed, will be a huge technological breakthrough.

The second is that in the Fire/EMS world, all of your Santa Barbara Fire agencies will soon be dispatched out of a Combined Regional Dispatch Center. For the first time, using Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) technology, a dispatcher will be able to see all the Emergency response vehicles available in real time. This allows a dispatcher to send the closest available resource, regardless of jurisdiction, to the scene of your emergency. For example, if a Montecito Fire Engine is closer than a Santa Barbara City Engine to your emergency, the Montecito Engine will respond. This “borderless” philosophy is a force multiplier that sends the closest available and appropriate response every time and keeps more equipment available for additional response.

In summary, the 911 system was challenged by the unexpected proliferation of cell phone technology. The gaps in information available to dispatchers are being addressed. New technology that allows a single dispatch center to monitor and dispatch all Fire and EMS resources is on the way. Now is not the time to abandon a system that has been incredibly effective for 50 years. Your 911 system is strong and getting better.


You might also be interested in...