When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, floodwaters forced 120 operators at the 911 center to abandon police headquarters. Emergency calls were supposed to be routed to the fire department but its main station was already abandoned. After hours of confusion, reports the Washington Post, many calls were shunted north to Baton Rouge, where unsuspecting emergency personnel found their phones ringing off the hooks. The disintegration of New Orleans’s 911 system carries national implications for future disasters. While some communities boast sophisticated, high-tech centers with elaborate contingency plans, most cities have older systems lacking adequate backup measures for massive disasters.
“People in our country have gotten to believe that no matter what kind of trouble you get into, all you have to do is dial 911,” said William Smith, chief technology officer at BellSouth. “That’s not necessarily the case.” The 911 network is actually little more than a patchwork, subject to the budgetary pressures and technological whims of local and state governments, with no national standards. Last year, Congress passed the Enhance 911 Act, which set aside $1.2 billion over five years to upgrade emergency systems and create a national coordinating agency for 911. But as Katrina was approaching, the money had still not been appropriated.