Real, fake 9-1-1 calls overloading CHP dispatch center

Copyright 2006 The Times-Herald 
Vallejo Times Herald (California) 
Bay City News Service report
Ordering a pizza, inquiring about a restaurant recommendation, or asking the time of day are not real emergencies, but one would not know that from the content of many of the 9-1-1 calls received by the Vallejo dispatch center of the California Highway Patrol.

The large volume of both valid emergency calls and invalid non-emergency calls received at the CHP command center in Vallejo has tied up the 9-1-1 phone lines for some callers, leading some Bay Area cities to opt to field their own cellular emergency calls.

San Francisco, San Jose, Alameda, and Union City are some of the cities that have recently started to receive cellular 9-1-1 calls directly, rather than having the calls routed through the CHP.

The CHP's command center in Vallejo receives approximately 3,000 legitimate emergency calls in a given 24-hour period, and dispatchers deal with approximately 600 additional non-emergency calls on top of that, said Daphne Thomas, a public safety dispatch supervisor with the CHP.

The large number of non-emergency calls received by the CHP, as well as the growing number of valid emergency cellular calls, has greatly burdened the dispatch center, and created delays for some 9-1-1 callers, CHP Officer Mike Wright said.

The CHP Vallejo dispatch center directly receives 9-1-1 calls made from cell phones in almost all of the cities and towns in the nine-county Bay Area.

When emergency cell phone calls are received by the dispatch center, dispatchers determine the caller's location, either by talking with them or, when possible, by tracing the location of the cell phone, and the case is then transferred the call to the appropriate local agency.

The CHP, as a state agency, was initially a "natural fit" to handle emergency calls from cell phones, Wright said. But now that cell phones are so prevalent, the volume of 911 calls received in Vallejo is becoming unmanageable.

The CHP's 911 communications system was "never designed to take on what it does today," Wright said. The Vallejo dispatch center has no more than 10 dispatchers working at any given time.

And the misuse of the system by people who call 9-1-1 when they don't have a real emergency ties up the line, at times forcing people who have real emergencies to wait to speak with a dispatcher, Wright said.

Thomas believes the Vallejo dispatch center could handle the current call volume if the illegitimate, non-emergency calls could somehow be filtered out.

The Union City Police Department started receiving direct 9-1-1 calls from cell phones within city limits in January. The switch was made in an effort to make emergency response more efficient, and to avoid some of the delays that can occur when calls are routed through Vallejo, said police Lt. Kelly Musgrove.

"Getting the 'please stand by' from Vallejo - that's what I wanted to avoid in my town," Musgrove said.

Musgrove expects that Union City will see a 20 to 30 percent increase in 9-1-1 call volume once the police department starts receiving calls from all the major cellular carriers in April.

The CHP would welcome more cities and towns directly handling their local 9-1-1 cell phone calls, Wright said.

"We're the middle man and it takes time. We don't like being the middle man," Wright said of the CHP's role in transferring 9-1-1 calls to local agencies.

Acknowledging that the CHP is currently the "middle man," Thomas cautioned that it would be difficult to create a communications system in which 100 percent of 9-1-1 calls would go directly to the appropriate agency.

Many other cities are considering directly receiving their own 9-1-1 calls from cell phones, Thomas said, and they will probably look to the experience of the cities that have already made the change. 
April 2, 2006

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