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SO19 911 Emergency Call Center System Improvements

Summary

The United States 911 system handles 500,000 calls daily or about 183 million annually.[1] Emergency 911 answering centers, called Public Service Access Points (PSAP), are not able to transfer data between different PSAP due to inadequate hardware and a lack of standard information format. The State of California should improve the technology used in the state network of 911 PSAP to increase its efficiency and effectiveness in normal situations and to ensure capacity in the event of a major disaster.

Background

California Highway Patrol (CHP) call centers answered over 8 million wireless 911 calls in 2002. CHP 911 operators are regularly overloaded during peak commute hours and callers often get a busy signal or are put on hold for up to ten minutes. Current technology used by CHP still cannot transfer calls from a PSAP that is over its volume capacity to another that has operators available. [2] Of the millions of California wireless 911 calls received, it is estimated that between 1.8 million and 3.6 million of these are “phantom calls.” (Phantom means nonemergency, accidental redials, speed dials, etc.) [3] While state law provides for fines for individuals misusing 911 for non-emergency calls, it has never been implemented. [4]

In a vehicle pursuit, when a car moves between dispatch locations, the call data is transmitted by voice and the data file remains at the originating PSAP. The CHP is working on a new system that will resolve some compatibility issues within their own PSAP system, but it still will not be integrated with other federal, state or local emergency responders. [5]

With the current CHP system, a single event can immediately overload the system and tie it up for long periods of time. A recent tanker truck fire on a Sacramento freeway resulted in over 1,000 cell phone calls to the Sacramento 911 call center and tied-up all five operators for over an hour. [6] When three cities tried to assume responsibility for answering wireless 911 calls in their areas, all three returned the responsibility to CHP because they were unable to handle the volume of calls. [7] As cell phone and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) use increases, the number of calls to CHP dispatch centers can also be expected to increase. [8]

In the current system, the transfer of information between PSAP, a mobile command post, officers on the street, and emergency headquarters requires a telephone call and a conversation, a process which is error prone. [9] The 911 phase II system is now being implemented as required by the Federal Communications Commission under which the wireless phone providers are required to provide the location of the wireless call, but only a few PSAP in the state have this technology now and it still will not create an effective communication system between various PSAP, commanders in the field and officers at the scene of an incident. [10]

The Department of General Services’ California 911 Emergency Communications Office is the central point of purchase and policy for all 911 communications systems in the state. However, this centralized purchasing of the systems has not resulted in the desired effect of creating an interconnected network of 911 emergency answering systems and Public Service Access Points.

Examples of system failures

During the emergency response to the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, emergency response commanders on the scene were unable to communicate to PSAP that people should evacuate the building. As a result, PSAP operators followed New York City’s standard operating procedure for hi-rise fires and advised callers to stay in impacted buildings. [11] In several ways, the 911 system was inadequate for handling a major disaster. In large part, PSAP operators and dispatchers were the only official source of communication for individuals on the damaged floors. Once evacuation decisions had been made, accurate guidance should have been made available to these operators and dispatchers. [12] This situation exposed many of the serious deficiencies in current PSAP systems.

The 2003 fires in Southern California engaged the State Office of Emergency Services, federal responders, responders from 18 cities and numerous firefighting PSAP. Because there had never been an agreement on the use of compatible systems, none were able to transfer data on fire zone situations to all the others to ensure coordination of efforts. Centers were overloaded with calls quickly and stayed that way for five days. The inability of the systems to manage the call traffic and transfer calls and logs to other call centers out of the area and other government agencies resulted in long delays in response time and residents unable to get information or medical attention.

Emergency deployment of personnel and equipment

The majority of emergency response vehicles in the state are not equipped with the GPS systems that are needed to ensure that emergency command centers are aware of the location of vehicles and officers that may be needed for effective deployment during a disaster. New GPS systems are low cost, effective and easy to install in existing systems and would make the PSAP and command centers more capable of effectively managing resources.

Recommendations

  1. The Governor should work with the Legislature to require payment of a fine or fee charged to individuals who place non-emergency 911 calls. Call centers should create a transfer capacity that automatically connects the caller to a recorded message that advises that the call was determined to be a non-emergency call and that a fine/fee will be charged to their telephone bill. The call center will maintain a call log for use if the customer wishes to appeal the charge.

  2. The Governor should work with the Legislature to establish two California 311 wireless non-emergency call centers.
  3. The Department of General Services’ California 911 Emergency Communications Office, or its successor agency, should link all state Public Service Access Points (PSAP) as soon as practicable to a statewide network. This will permit data to be transferred between various PSAP and federal, state and local responders, as needed.
  4. The Department of General Services’ California 911 Emergency Communications Office, or its successor, should work with the Office of Emergency Services, or its successor, to standardized databases so all California call centers can share data and information with one another.
  5. The Department of General Services’ California 911 Emergency Communications Office, or its successor, should develop an emergency call roll-over system that will permit an overloaded center to transfer excess calls to other centers.
  6. The Department of General Services’ California 911 Emergency Communications Office, or its successor agency, should explore the use of new technologies, under development by California Highway Patrol, that screen incoming 911 calls to determine if they are valid emergencies or not.
  7. The Department of General Services’ California 911 Emergency Communications Office, or its successor agency, should explore statewide implementation of the Phase II Wireless Cell Phone Improvement that requires cell phone providers to transfer the location of the cell phone along with each call. The Department of General Services’ California 911 Emergency Communications Office should explore expanding this reporting mechanism to require the service provider to also provide the subscriber’s name, address and cell phone number at the time of each emergency call.
  8. The Department of General Services’ California 911 Emergency Communications Office, or its successor agency, should develop data logging standards for 911 calls so all emergency response units can use and share this data and information.

Fiscal Impacts

The costs to improve the current 911 process cannot be estimated at this time because the equipment needs have not been identified. Over the past five years, the General Fund borrowed about $100 million from the 911 Special Fund. These loans have not been repaid. [13] These funds along with other funding may need to be used to fund the improved 911 equipment.

Federal Homeland Security Grants and National Emergency Number Association grants may provide some additional funding. These additional funds cannot be projected at this time.

CHP answers over 8 million wireless 911 calls annually. Based on information provided by CHP, between 1.8 million 3.6 million are non-emergency 911 calls. Fees or fines that may be imposed on non-emergency calls will result in additional revenues. These revenues cannot be estimated until the fee and fine dollar amount are established by the Legislature.

Endnotes

[1] U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, “Misuse and Abuse of 911,” by Rana Sampson (Washington, D.C., September 2, 2002).
[2] California Highway Report, “911 Statistics Yearly Report 3/2003–3/2004,” Sacramento, California, March 26, 2004.
[3] U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, “Misuse and Abuse of 911.”
[4] California Highway Report, “911 Statistics Yearly Report 3/2003–3/2004.”
[5] Interview with Kevin Green, Chief Information officer, California Highway Patrol, Sacramento (April 26, 2004).
[6] Interview with Roy Young, Telecommunications officer, California Highway Patrol, West Sacramento, California (April 1, 2004).
[7] Interview with Kevin Green.
[8] U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, “Misuse and Abuse of 911.”
[9] Interview with Kevin Green.
[10] National Emergency Number Association, “The Development of 9-1-1,” http://www.nena9-1-1.org/PR_Pubs/Devel_of_911.htm(last visited June 18, 2004).
[11] National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, “Emergency Preparedness and Response, Staff Statement No. 13,” http://www.9-11commission.gov/hearings/hearing11/staff_statement_13.pdf (last visited June 13, 2004), p. 7.
[12] National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, “Crisis Management, Staff Statement No. 14,” http://a911gov.tempdomainname.com/hearings/hearing11/staff_statement_14.pdf (last visited June 13, 2004), p. 9.
[13] Interview with Daphnie Rowe, Department of General Services Telecommunications, Emergency Communications Centers, Sacramento, California (May 25, 2004).