CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Monday, April 9, 2007

911 is in a State of Crisis

From As in many areas of the country, more 911 calls here come from cellphones than land lines. But 40 percent of the nation’s counties, most of them rural or small-town communities like this one, cannot yet pinpoint the location of cellphone callers, though the technology to do so has been available for at least five years.

Since the inception of 911 more than 30 years ago, the three-digit S O S has become universally familiar and relied upon. But the system has not kept pace with the nation’s rapidly changing communication habits. As it ages, it is cracking, with problems like system overload, understaffing, misrouted calls and bug-ridden databases leading to unanswered calls and dangerous errors.

At the same time, the number of calls continues to grow. In Cherokee County, for instance, the volume has increased by 20 percent a year.

Officials in places large and small have declared a 911 crisis. When 30,000 emergency calls went unanswered in Chattanooga, Tenn., where Bob Corker, the Republican candidate for United States Senate in 2006, had served as mayor, his Democratic opponent, Harold E. Ford Jr., made it a campaign issue.

Officials in Riverside County, Calif., fed up with misrouted calls, have been advising residents to call the sheriff or local fire department directly.

In Bessemer, Ala., city employees could not get through to their own 911 system when a colleague had a seizure, at a time when the city and others like it are struggling to upgrade their systems at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Yet 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, the governmental affairs director for the National Emergency Number Association, whose state-by-state tracking shows that New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are in the forefront of adopting 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.” Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]

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