Sheriff's dispatch center: Busy signal on 911 call?

Written by Anthony Skeens, The Triplicate May 09, 2013 02:55 pm

Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office Communications Officer Wendy Malone sits at her workstation in the dispatch center. Malone is one of three full-time dispatchers who handle all of the county’s 911 calls. Each dispatcher works 12-hour shifts without breaks.
Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office Communications Officer Wendy Malone sits at her workstation in the dispatch center. Malone is one of three full-time dispatchers who handle all of the county’s 911 calls. Each dispatcher works 12-hour shifts without breaks. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
Wendy Malone is the voice of reason who has spoken to Del Norte residents during their most traumatic times of need for the past 12 years. She’s there when someone discovers a murder, suicide or intoxicated driver.

She also works to ensure the safety of emergency responders by figuring out whether there are guns in a house, whether there are warrants for a person pulled over in a traffic stop — and the location of that house on the unnamed drive off a poorly lit highway.

She’s quarterbacking information relayed during police chases, tsunamis and manhunts.

And she does it all sitting in front of six computer screens in a small room at the Sheriff’s Office.

“We’re the eyes and ears before anyone gets on scene,” said Malone, communications supervisor for the Sheriff’s Office.

Now her job has gotten harder.

Until last November, the Sheriff’s Office dispatch — the only dispatch center in the county — had 12 lines to service 911 calls. Then it was integrated by the state into the California Enhanced 911 network, supposedly so it would start receiving wireless calls directly with the accompanying location information. It’s the work of the California Public Safety Communications Office, the state agency that oversees the 911 system for emergency dispatch centers. It is funded by a telephone surcharge on California residents.

In order for the integration to fully occur, the system needed to be built from fiber optics and a microwave/radio tower installation, said Christine Lally, assistant secretary for legislation and communications for the California Technology Agency.

But the integration isn’t working here, county officials say, because 911 calls from cell phones are still going to the California Highway Patrol. And now the county has only two 911 direct lines, which is the state minimum. The Safety Communications Office dictates how many lines a county receives based on  911 call volume. The amount of lines can be increased or decreased based on whether the dispatch center maintains one busy signal per 100 attempts.

“We were told if we petition the state 911 to show justification to try to get them increased there’s a small likelihood that it would happen,” said sheriff’s Commander Tim Athey.

A monitor screen displays software that helps dispatchers connect to all law enforcement and emergency personnel in the county.
A monitor screen displays software that helps dispatchers connect to all law enforcement and emergency personnel in the county. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
Del Norte gets roughly 20 911 calls on an average day, said Alicia Fuller, telecommunications systems manager for the CPSCO.

“If two calls taken happen to be on the lines simultaneously then that third caller does not get answered,” said Fuller. “There is a process in place should there be a concern.”

The integration was designed to help enhance efficiency, but now has caused a problem with fielding more than two 911 calls at any given time, said Malone.

“Can you imagine your child choking and you’re calling 911 getting a busy signal?” said Malone.

Previously, Malone said she and the other dispatchers had more leeway in prioritizing the importance of calls because they were able to answer more at once and place certain calls on hold as a result of having multiple lines. 

All 911 calls from cell phones are automatically forwarded to a CHP dispatch center —  Humboldt County’s is the closest one — or if it’s a call made near the Oregon border to Curry County, said Malone.

The reason it gets routed to the CHP is that it’s assumed the person making the call is driving, Malone said.

Once the call gets routed to either of those two places the dispatcher at that station will ask the preliminary questions to decipher what is happening and then more than likely forward it back to Del Norte, where the dispatcher will have to repeat the same questions to understand what is happening, Malone said.

And the integration still doesn’t produce a location for the call unless it is placed from a land line, Malone said.

The problems facing Del Norte’s dispatch center with the new integration are further compounded by the fact that it is the only one in the county — Humboldt has three in addition to the CHP, Malone said. 

The Triplicate obtained an e-mail sent to a supervisor of the California 911 Emergency Communications Division for the North Coast Region by the Sheriff’s Office 911 coordinator before the integration occurred, relaying Sheriff Dean Wilson’s concerned about the decrease in lines and inquiring about how to get more lines. Wilson requested six but would be comfortable with four, the e-mail said.

The reply e-mail from 911 regional supervisor explained the 1-100 busy signal to received call quota and had an attachment for the state’s 911 operations manual regarding policies mandated to “provide the fastest, most reliable and cost effective telephone access to emergency services for any 911 caller in California.”

It primarily concerns the rules and procedures dispatch centers should be following.

Lally said Wednesday she was not aware of the Sheriff’s Office request to increase the lines.

“We can take a look at it,” said Lally.

While the Sheriff’s Office only has two working 911 lines, there are three other back lines that lead directly to dispatch by dialing 464-4191, ext. 221. 

Those lines will be picked up as soon as possible, but the assumption is they can wait in an emergency, Malone said.

Sometimes people call 911 for situations that don’t necessarily require an immediate emergency response, Malone said.

People will report a severe injury knowing they will get a faster response, and when the officer arrives on scene it’s something comparable to a “hangnail,” or other times people will call for an ambulance because they want a ride to town or help looking for lost dogs, Malone said. 

The best way to gauge whether the situation merits a call for 911 is if it is a crime occurring at the moment or could be a life or death situation, Malone said.

Legitimate reasons include coming home to an open door or broken window where a burglary could still be in progress, active disputes, vehicle burglary, missing child, medical problems, the sight or smell of smoke at a house or car crashes, Malone said.

When a call is made to 911, it is important to try to remain as calm as possible, Malone said.

And try to have information at the ready: addresses, who is involved, and the extent of the injuries, Malone said.