04/10/2012 11:47 am ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

911 Cellphone Calls: Millions Don't Connect Directly With Local Police

Story comes courtesy of California Watch.

By Ryan Gabrielson

Cellphones allow people to immediately report emergencies from the scene, but millions of 911 calls in California each year do not connect directly with local police.

Out of 15 million emergency calls from wireless phones last year, more than 7 million went first to the California Highway Patrol. Dispatchers at the state agency then had to patch calls through to the right police or fire department, delaying the responses.

The California 9-1-1 Emergency Communications Office has worked since 2007 to shift wireless calls from the highway patrol’s dispatch centers to those operated by local law enforcement. The benefit of changing the system is shorter wait times for crimes in progress, structure fires and medical crises, according to presentations [PDF] by state 911 officials.

But not all local police have joined in the effort.

Twenty agencies, including large metropolitan forces like the Oakland and Sacramento police departments, continue to defer [DOC] wireless emergency calls to the highway patrol. State dispatchers can sometimes direct the reports to local police by computer. Other times, the highway patrol handles calls on behalf of city and county departments when multiple calls come in about a single emergency.

“There’ve been some conversations between CHP and other agencies to encourage them to take those calls, because it really is a more efficient way of call routing,” said Dee Dee Teal, communications centers commander for the California Highway Patrol.

The Sacramento department has formally agreed to deploy its dispatch center for wireless calls but hasn't yet begun doing so, said Karen Wong, director of the state Public Safety Communications Office.

The delay has been about manpower, Sacramento police Sgt. Andrew Pettit said in a written statement. "We have the technology to receive the calls, but due to continuing limited number of staff we have yet to directly receive 911 wireless calls."

Oakland police did not return calls or e-mails from California Watch seeking comment.

Police and fire departments in the past frequently were unable to take wireless calls directly due to outdated equipment and inadequate staffing, Teal said. Technology improved as cellphones became the largest source of emergency calls – about 60 percent of the 25 million calls last year, state records show.

Most of the departments still relying on the highway patrol for wireless 911 calls are small and receive relatively few emergency reports. Six of these departments are police forces at California State University campuses.

Until recently, California Highway Patrol dispatchers received five times more emergency calls than their colleagues at local departments. “One reason wait times are high is that dispatchers at centers handled significantly more calls than did dispatchers at any of the four local answering points we reviewed,” a California State Auditor report [PDF] said in 2004.

City police and county sheriffs maintain public safety answering points, which are dispatch centers that, all combined, directly received 7.6 million 911 calls in 2011. That number is up 145 percent [PDF] from four years ago, the agency report said, as many police departments have taken over responsibilities for wireless calls in their jurisdictions.

Overall, the state has succeeded in “shaving precious minutes from emergency response times and increasing the chance of survival for a person in cardiac arrest or a family whose house is on fire,” an agency press release states. The state's 911 response data backs up the claim.

In 2007, 42 percent of California cellphone 911 calls received a busy signal because there weren’t enough dispatchers to answer, according to a report from the California Technology Agency. By 2011, that figure was less than 3 percent.

Ryan Gabrielson covers public safety for California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting. To read more California Watch stories, click here.