A growing number of San Mateo County residents are turning to their cellphones when they need to call 911, a trend that can cause potentially dangerous delays for public safety dispatchers, according to officials.
San Mateo County Public Safety Communications, the county’s main dispatch center for all emergency fire and medical calls, took 37,644 cellphone calls to 911 last year, making up 46.7 percent of all 911 calls, according to recently released statistics.
Those numbers are up from 26,752 wireless 911 calls in 2009, or 41.7 percent of all such calls, and 7,012 in the past six months of 2008, or 20 percent, according to the dispatch center, which also handles calls for some Peninsula law enforcement and other agencies.
For dispatchers and public safety responders, cellphones pose several challenges. Unlike landline calls, which give dispatchers an exact address and sometimes a name, cellphones don’t provide an exact location, dispatch center Director Jaime Young said.
Sometimes dispatchers see a map with latitude and longitude, but other calls only provide the location of a cell tower, which can cost precious seconds, Young said.
“It could be in front of a residence, and it could be fairly accurate. That’s great,” Young said, “but it may not necessarily be [accurate].”
While dispatchers can often ask the caller for an address, some residents forget where they live in a time of crisis and non-English speakers might need to wait for a translator, Young said.
“Sometimes people will call 911 from a cellphone, and if they can’t get a location and they hang up, we have no way of checking to see if they’re OK or not,” Burlingame police Capt. Mike Matteucci said.
The county hasn’t done a complete analysis on whether the cellphone shift is impacting response times, though Young said wireless calls typically don’t meet the 60-second processing standard dispatchers achieve for landline calls.
Officials said the situation has improved from several years ago, when local agencies didn’t have wireless 911 capabilities and nearly all cellphone calls went to the California Highway Patrol before being transferred back to local agencies. But even though the county center and city police dispatch centers now take wireless calls, the system isn’t perfect.
Broadmoor police Chief Greg Love recalled an incident when a local man calling 911 was annoyed when the dispatcher didn’t know a local school where someone had collapsed. His call had been routed to the CHP and had to be transferred back to a local dispatcher before help was sent, Love said.
Young recommended residents program in their phone the number of their local dispatch center to guarantee their call goes to the right place in an emergency. She said the share of wireless 911 calls will only increase as residents dispose of their traditional landline phones more and more.
A report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last week found that 26.6 percent of American households had only wireless phones as of the first half of 2010, an eightfold increase over just six years.
In California, the estimated percentage of adults living in wireless-only households had grown from 8.9 percent in 2007 to 18.2 percent by June 2010, according to the CDC report.
“There’s a ton of people that are out there doing that,” Young said of ditching landlines in favor of cellphones. “I don’t advocate ever disconnecting your landline at home, because it is kind of your insurance policy.”
Emergency dispatchers are learning to deal with cellphone calls, but other increasingly common technologies could present new challenges in the next couple years.
Text messaging, digital photos and video calls are among the elements that state officials are considering integrating into the next generation of 911 equipment.
“It changes the face of how emergency calls are reported,” said Jaime Young, the director of San Mateo County Public Safety Communications.
Young said she has concerns about asking dispatchers to “multitask as much as they do now and then load on two or three more media types.”
“I don’t want to send somebody to a different house because a dispatcher was distracted,” Young said.
However, extra data could be useful in helping dispatchers and responders assess a situation and make responses faster, said Karen Wong, the deputy director of the state’s Public Safety Communications Office.
Still, Wong acknowledged Young’s concerns.
“What we’re going to have to watch very closely is the impact to the [local dispatch centers] and information overload and what do we do with this information,” Wong said.
Young said the county plans to wait for the state guidelines and see how other agencies use the new technology before considering changing its operations. Wong said the state is on track to start putting new infrastructure into place in 2013.
“There’s still a lot of planning to do to make sure this comes out right,” Wong said.
Authorities offer several tips for people who choose to use cellphones to dial 911: