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Dial 511???


As reported in most newspapers across the nation on Wednesday, July 24, and July 28, 1996;

President Clinton is urging for "A New Alternative 911 Number." This per his statements on the emergency telephone system at a western political fund raising trip in Sacramento, CA. The system is "completely overburdened" and called for a secondary easily recognizable alternative number for non-emergencies. He added, not to our surprise from an insiders point of view, that the system is so overtaxed that many serious calls are placed on hold or transferred to an answering machine.

His audience was a large crowd assembled outside the office of W.E.A.V.E. (Women Escaping A Violent Environment), which offers counseling and shelter for abused women and children. He added, "victims of domestic abuse, victims of violent crimes, are having a harder and harder time getting through." While focusing on family issues and domestic violence, he used those situations to explain the rationale for the new alternative number.

The 911 system was initiated in 1967 by the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. AT&T announced "911" as the number to dial after a single number for emergency requests nationwide was recommended. The first 911 call was made in Haleyville, Ala. in February 1968. Presently, an estimated 280,000 calls are made per day. In New York City alone the number of calls is estimated to exceed 12.5 million per year in 2005. A new 911 system in Los Angeles will be completed in 2000 and was approved by a $235 million bond issue. In Chicago and New York the new systems costs $217 million each.

Law enforcement agencies say that the 911 system developed in the late 60's to route calls for help for life threatening emergencies and crimes in progress to the appropriate authorities, occasionally gets backed up. Or, the line is busy as the public calls in for non-emergency needs or questions. People have phoned 911 when they found a wallet, locked their keys in the car or wanted to know what to do if they have an emergency or how to cook dinner if the power goes off..... Of course if a child or a pet is locked in a car, an emergent situation exists, but misuse of the system designed to help the public gain access to the public services offered is against the law and violators will be prosecuted. Common sense should apply when a network as well designed as this is utilized. Abusers do not realize that their phone number and address is automatically posted on a computer screen verifying the information. So, someone making a prank call, a bomb threat, or asking for directions on where the fireworks are for the Fourth of July, are automatically identified.

The system also becomes overwhelmed during a fire, a severe storm or heat wave, and when a major traffic accident occurs and 50 calls come in from well meaning cell phone users. Also, a chronic shortage of staff prevails due to the stress, low wages and poor benefits offered in most cities. In Los Angeles last year, 325,261 calls for help or assistance (13.5%) of the total were abandoned by the callers prior to the 911 operator answering the request. The Los Angeles Police Officers call it "Chasing the Radio" as calls stack up on their Mobile Data Terminals. As many as 28 calls were handled in one 12 hour shift. During a storm in Dallas last Spring, callers had to wait 90 seconds or longer. The most notorious event took place in Philadelphia in November 1994. A fight, well a gang beating of a 16 year old boy escalated to his demise as he was beaten to death on the steps to the church where he was an Alter Boy. After more than 20 calls came in and 45 minutes later, Eddie Polec lay dying with his head crushed in. The 911 operators were accused of being rude, non-compassionate, non-competent, and neglectful as they put citizens on hold and verbally abused them for requesting help. They were hostile in their responses to the 911 callers; "don't talk to me like that," "I ask you the questions." Six operators were terminated or suspended. The 911 operators stated that is was not clear to them that all the calls were pertaining to the same incident and cited lack of training and policy as their defense. Other findings from the audit indicate that there were not enough police units on duty and the system was taxed with many other non-emergency calls. Also, two years ago an undercover investigation by Chicago's Better Government Association found ten dispatchers sleeping on the job.

Dispatchers are stressed, overworked and underpaid. They play a chess game on a computer screen with the system, answer distressing calls from distraught and shocked and emotional callers sometimes reporting horrible scenes or deaths of loved one. They also have to interact with "overworked field units." The average yearly salary for a dispatcher is the mid $20,000.00. These problems are being addressed by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials and the National Emergency Number Association. Training, sensitivity classes, debriefing, and better working conditions, benefits and salaries are working to solve the problems. Chicago's system is a state of the design and has cut stress on dispatchers not only with equipment, technology, but also the work environment.

Help for thousands delayed by the misuse of the 911 emergency network!

One result of the overwhelming amount of calls coming in to the 911 centers, results in long waits by stranded motorist on freeways at call boxes. The freeway boxes are solar powered cellular phones. All 911 calls made over conventional phones get routed to the nearest public safety agency. But, the call box requests for help go to the California Highway Patrol communications center. It is estimated that as many as 90% of the calls received are non-emergencies in some areas. It is also estimated that 2.8 million cellular phones are in service in California alone. They get a lot of calls from tourists asking; "how do I get to Sea World." People use the system as "411" or the "Triple A" and ask for directions, the time, or map and driving information. And a lot of calls come in after officers and ambulances are already at scene. And, of course sometimes responses are duplicated as a reporting party gives a different location of the incident. Another problem is the "911 Hang Ups" that have to be answered. In that case, a complete response is initiated; an engine company, and ambulance, and a police patrol car. 98% of those calls are false alarms caused by children playing with the phone or auto dialer malfunctions. Some callers blatantly lie about the request to get a unit there quicker. For instance; "my mother is not breathing, she fell," or " the man has a gun." Of course this abuse can be fatal if the responding officer believes there is a hazard with a weapon. Also, most fire and rescue units will "stage" prior to accessing the scene awaiting the "Code 4" or all clear report.

"Scottsdale Mayor is lost on 911 use"

Mayor Kathryn "Sam" Campana admits calling 911 about six times since her election in April 1996. She was not calling for medical assistance, however; she was calling for directions to city functions. She did this after failing to get through on non-emergency lines. Since then, she has been given three private telephone lines for use the next time she gets "lost." Her last call came in on August 14th. when the emergency lines were taxed due to a power outage from a storm. She was politely reminded of the use of the 911 network by Police Chief Micheal Heidingsfield.

One solution is the result of a bill signed by Governor Pete Wilson this moth, SB 655 by Senator William Craven, R-Oceanside that will authorize a pilot program that will automatically transfer call to a possibly a private answering service hired under a contract. Mike Perkins of the San Diego Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies said that 13,692 calls were place from San Diego County freeway call boxes last May. 7,378 of the calls were answered within the first 15 seconds; 2,600 were on hold for more than a minute, and 1,100 were on hold for more than two minutes. At least 10 people were on hold for more than 10 minutes and those calls were lost. The emergency services authority has 1,663 call boxes in San Diego County, one on each side of the freeway every 1/2 mile. Cellular phone users placed an estimated 2.1 million calls to 911 in California last year said Steve Carlson, executive director of the Cellular Carriers Association of California.

In Buffalo New York, the new "non-emergency" number is 853-2222. In Los Angeles, an 800 number will be commissioned as the "non-emergency" access to public services. And AT&T is also planning a single national non-emergency network number that would route the caller to the nearest police department. But, the National Emergency Number Association opposes the idea. It is believed that some people will become confused and not know which number to dial...

President Clinton will ask for U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to help the Federal Communications Commission, law enforcement leaders and the telecommunications industry to develope the alternative number. The technology is mostly the responsibility of the phone companies and the project can be completed relatively quickly and inexpensively.

It is, however, unclear how the number would differ from the current number used for emergencies. Possibly a 511 number or the 800 number for non-emergencies and an alternative number (such as 811) for H.M.O. related networks which is being implemented in some large U.S. cities like San Diego.

by Mitch Mendler E.M.T. Paramedic

For a related and informative story on how San Diego's system is designed and operates. Please check out The San Diego Medical Dispatch page; Welcome to the San Diego Medical Communications Center.

Web page design and maintenance by Mitch Mendler E.M.T. Paramedic;The WebMaster!

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Text and articles provided by the members of the San Diego Paramedics and San Diego County Paramedic Association or related parties. This "News Service" is an additional medium to the newsletters produced by Bob Morrison for The San Diego Paramedics and Todd Klingensmith for The SDCPA.
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