In many areas, more 911 calls here come from cellphones than land lines. Yet 40 percent of the nation's counties, most of them rural or small-town communities, cannot pinpoint the location of cellphone callers, though the technology to do so has been available for at least five years, says the New York Times. Last December, 911 operators in eastern Oklahoma listened for 27 minutes and 34 seconds to the screams and retching of a caller as an intruder beat her in front of her two daughters, ages 3 and 4. There was little else they could do.
As the 911 system ages, says the Times, it is cracking, with problems like system overload, understaffing, misrouted calls, and bug-ridden databases leading to unanswered calls and dangerous errors. Places large and small have declared a 911 crisis. When 30,000 emergency calls went unanswered in Chattanooga, Tn., where Bob Corker, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in 2006, had served as mayor, his Democratic opponent, Harold E. Ford Jr., made it a campaign issue. Officials in Riverside County, Ca., fed up with misrouted calls, have advised residents to call the sheriff or local fire department directly. Even the newest systems cannot adequately handle Internet-based phone services or text messages, which emerged as the most reliable form of communication during Hurricane Katrina. “Everyone expects 911 to work perfectly 100 percent of the time,” said Patrick Halley of the National Emergency Number Association, who says New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are in the forefront of new technology. “And the public doesn't really care about 911 until they go to use it and expect it to work perfectly and it doesn't.”