By Robert J. Lopez and Rich Connell
The Los Angeles Times
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.
The worst-case scenarios have become worse. In early 2006, the longest delay in any given month at the LAPD was under two minutes. By June and July of this year, these delays stretched more than 10 minutes.
The system for getting wireless calls to the right agency is complex. Calls are transmitted via cell towers with individual panels assigned to either the CHP or local police agencies. Local agencies tend to take calls from panels aimed at businesses and residential areas, the CHP from panels aimed at freeways.
With the jump in cell calls, staffing at larger 911 dispatch centers across the state is often failing to keep pace. Despite adding positions, the CHP has vacancy rates of more than 30% in Orange, San Diego and Ventura counties. The LAPD is down 43 dispatchers, or 8% of its authorized dispatch force.
No one has a handle on the full scope of the problems.
The CHP has not comprehensively tracked call volumes, wait times and abandonment rates at its dispatch centers, even though it has been faulted by auditors and others since 2004 for its inability to pinpoint weaknesses and make improvements. Basic statistics -- some of them incomplete -- had to be specifically prepared at the request of The Times.
At the CHP call center serving the Mexican border area, a software malfunction wiped out performance data for much of 2006.
This month, the CHP's Lopey said, the agency launched a unit to collect data showing how it is managing 911 calls and help better deploy staff and equipment.
'It was just nuts'
When wireless phones came into popular use 20 years ago — then generating fewer than 100,000 emergency calls a year — they were largely attached to cars and used on highways. So it made sense for the CHP to field them. But cellphones rapidly became ubiquitous. One of the most unmanageable problems has been unpredictable call surges.
Often, dozens — even hundreds — of cellphone passersby report the same accident, crime or fire to CHP dispatchers. Callers can be rebuffed with a busy signal or stuck in a seemingly endless electronic queue, urged in a taped message to stay on the line and wait their turn.
Jim Slater joined that long line once. Last year, he spotted a reckless driver heading eastbound on the 210 Freeway through Sylmar. The man was cutting across lanes and weaving wildly through traffic.
"It was just nuts. He put a lot of people at risk," recalled Slater.
He called 911 on his cellphone and got a tape saying that all operators were busy. He got the same message on a second call. By his third try, the driver was gone, but Slater was angry and stayed on the line to lodge a complaint. After about 17 minutes, he said, a CHP dispatcher answered.
"What good is an emergency system if you have a 17-minute wait?" Slater asked. "It just flat boggles the mind."
At least he got through.
In the last 1 1/2 years, nearly 1.5 million 911 calls to the CHP's Los Angeles center were abandoned before they were answered, about 49%.
Evangeline Ordaz Molina, a Highland Park resident, was one of those whose call for help went nowhere. She tried to summon police on her cellphone for about 15 minutes last summer, she says, as a teenage boy was being assaulted and robbed outside her home. Ordaz Molina, an attorney, has only a cellphone at her home and got a busy signal when she first called 911. She tried a second time and got a recording at the CHP, she said.
While she waited, she borrowed a neighbor's cellphone and called directory assistance. She was connected to a non-emergency number at the Northeast Division police station. An officer there forwarded her to the LAPD emergency center — where she would have gone directly had she used a land line.
By the time police arrived, the attackers were long gone, along with the boy's cellphone and iPod. He was shaken up but not badly injured.
Ordaz Molina complained to several officers that evening, she said. They all gave the same advice: "Don't call from a cellphone."
The LAPD is now picking up wireless calls directly from her neighborhood.
A daunting future
Local agencies began taking wireless calls in 2002, but some law enforcement agencies have been wary of moving too quickly without beefing up their staffing. The state offers technical support but no money for additional dispatchers.
Staffing issues have delayed Long Beach's transition, for instance, but the city plans to start taking such calls next year.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is directly taking wireless calls at three stations: East Los Angeles, Norwalk and Century. Palmdale soon will follow, as will 17 other stations by late 2008. So far, the department has been able to handle the increased call load, said Sgt. Fernando Vasquez. "We'll see what the future holds."
From the CHP's perspective, the future looks daunting. Even when all local agencies take their share of the wireless 911 calls, the CHP will continue to handle the bulk of the cellular load because so many calls come from freeways or areas nearby.
Moreover, routing calls to the right agency is not as simple as it sounds. For technical reasons, calls can go to the wrong cell tower panel and spill into the wrong dispatch center.
Dividing up calls is "not even close to clean," said Linda McNeill, the CHP's 911 coordinator.
Indeed, since taking wireless 911 calls, the LAPD has had to route thousands of calls each month back to the CHP.
However the agencies involved sort it out, L.P. Simmons, a vendor at Staples Center, just wants someone to pick up 911 cell calls faster.
He said he was traveling on the Metro Blue Line through Watts north of the 105 Freeway earlier this year when an apparent drug deal went bad. Two men began arguing. One struck the other, snatched some money and bolted off the train at the 103rd Street station.
"I see it going down. I had enough time to make contact," Simmons said. "They could have possibly had someone get this suspect."
Instead, the attacker pedaled away on a bicycle as Simmons waited on hold, he said. A CHP dispatcher picked up six minutes later.
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times
Cell phones swamping Calif. 911 system