As law enforcement agencies across the country continue to update their 911 systems with increasingly sophisticated technology, the margin for errors that can shut an emergency line down for minutes at a time has never been greater.
New York City got its enhanced 911 system on line in January after five years of surcharging residents 35 cents for the emergency dispatch system. The state-of-the-art communications grid promises not only to cut down on the processing time for each call, but to provide dispatchers with the caller’s address automatically. While hailed as a marked improvement over the way 911 calls have been previously handled, it’s given police officials more than a few bad moments during the year.
In April, callers to police headquarters were greeted with a message telling them that police were too busy eating donuts, masturbating, and drinking coffee to answer their calls. It also gave the emergency number as 119. The message ran from 6 P.M. on April 17 to roughly 6 A.M. the following day. Police believe it was the work of computer hackers who broke into the system and changed the message.
Earlier in the month, the $156-million system crashed for more than 40 minutes late one afternoon, delaying help to more than 1,000 emergency callers. And in March, a tape that records communications between 911 dispatchers and transit officers was cut and the ends tied in knots.
In New England, switching equipment that was damaged at a Meriden, Conn., phone company office left that city without 911 service for several hours on Aug. 14.
Officials in Northampton County, Pa., have tried to counter these problems by awarding the first contract ever to a private company to operate and build an E- 911 system. The $42.8-million agreement is less than half of what the county would have paid had it issued a bond, said County Executive Bill Brackbill, who added that as a county government, Northampton did not have the necessary technical expertise. “We felt we’d get much more efficient and effective operations,” he said.
Another growing problem faced by 911 dispatch systems, no matter how sophisticated, is calls from cellular phones. With some 36.5 million cellular phones in use in the country, and some 50,000 calls to 911 made daily from them, according to the most recent figures from 1994, the technology has created a thorny problem for emergency call systems: Dispatchers are unable to isolate the location of callers using the phones. New rules adopted in June by the Federal Communications Commission will require the industry to upgrade technology so that 911 operators can pinpoint a cell-caller’s location to within 400 feet. In Fulton County, Ga., in April, it took firefighters up to 20 minutes to find a house on fire that someone had reported to their enhanced 911 system by cellular phone.
With the huge number of calls made to the country’s 911 systems a sizable percentage of them non-emergencies it is inevitable, experts say, that some callers are going to get recordings asking them to hold on and wait for an operator. That has not sat well with residents in many areas. In one extreme example, a store clerk in Prince George’s County, Md., tried twice to reach a human being before an armed robber convinced her she might not live to try a third time.
In Philadelphia, a jury returned verdicts Feb. 5 against six youths accused of fatally beating a 16-year-old boy to death. Some 33 calls were made to 911 reporting the beating before a police car showed up 40 minutes later. Transcripts of the calls revealed dispatchers to have been rude and impatient with callers.
Both Baltimore and the New York City Police departments have opted for a second, non-emergency line that is meant to ease the volume of calls swamping 911. In Baltimore, residents complaining about non-life threatening incidents can call 311. Sgt. Nelson Herrman, administrator of the city’s 911/311 system, said about one-third of the calls usually logged to 911 are going to the new line.
In New York City, residents have to dial a few extra numbers (888) 677-LIFE to lodge complaints about panhandlers, prostitutes and other daily annoyances. The quality-of-life complaints will be checked out by police within a few days. Launched Sept. 13, the LIFE line logged 1,279 complaints, 43 percent of them for excessive noise, in its first two weeks.