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 as crimes or potentially deadly emergencies unfold, reports the Los Angeles Times. Wireless 911 calls statewide have jumped tenfold since 1990, to more than 8 million last year. Cell calls now make up the majority of all 911 calls; 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. The difficulty in pinpointing the location of cellphone callers has long been recognized. A Times review found that the system often bogs or breaks down even before a call reaches a dispatcher. Hardest hit are callers routed to the California Highway Patrol, which handles nearly three-quarters of wireless calls. The state says 90 percent of 911 calls should be answered in less than 10 seconds, a standard embraced by dispatch centers across the country. At the patrol’s two largest call centers, in Los Angeles and San Francisco, waits average more than five times that. Most of the calls came from cellphones.