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Santa Barbara Fire Chief Pushes for 9-1-1 Routing Changes for Cellphone Calls

California’s emergency dispatch system handles cell, landline calls differently, leading to sometimes deadly delays; legislation is afoot to streamline response

Jill Steinmetz handles a 9-1-1 call at the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department emergency dispatch center. Calls from landline telephones go directly to the center but cellphone calls are transferred from the California Highway Patrol’s own dispatch operation. Click to view larger
Jill Steinmetz handles a 9-1-1 call at the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department emergency dispatch center. Calls from landline telephones go directly to the center but cellphone calls are transferred from the California Highway Patrol’s own dispatch operation. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

The logistics of how a 9-1-1 call gets to emergency responders can be complicated, so Santa Barbara Fire Chief Pat McElroy takes a storyteller approach.

On the evening of Jan. 30, 2014, the brother of 24-year-old Jordan Soto found her unconscious on the floor of the Westside Santa Barbara home she shared with her parents and 17-month-old son.

He used his cellphone to call 9-1-1, a call that was routed to California Highway Patrol dispatchers in Ventura as the nearest state-assigned public-safety answering point.

The Santa Barbara Police Department and Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department have emergency dispatch centers, but California decided in the 1970s that the CHP would handle calls from cellphones. Back then, most mobile phones were in cars, and CHP patrols state roadways.

Ventura CHP dispatchers routed the Jordan Soto call to Santa Barbara police, which would’ve received the call first if a landline had been used.

An enhanced 9-1-1 system automatically gives dispatchers an address for landline telephones — which is especially relevant when a person isn’t able to talk because an intruder is in the home or due to stroke, McElroy said.

Somewhere in the transfer, the wrong address was passed along and an ambulance was dispatched to an Eastside home instead. The dispatcher had to instruct Soto’s family on how to perform CPR.

The 15 minutes that passed before emergency responders arrived cost Soto her life, McElroy said.

Her home was less than a mile from Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and less than a quarter-mile from the nearest fire station.

Today, when more than 80 percent of 9-1-1 calls come from cellphones, McElroy said the system needs to be updated.

“Nobody was anticipating this,” he said of the rise in cellphones. “We have to acknowledge this problem exists. People are starting to notice.”

McElroy is hitting the pavement in support of AB 1564, a bill proposed by Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, that would require the state to conduct annual, comprehensive reviews to ensure 9-1-1 calls are being routed to the right dispatcher the first time.

The bill unanimously passed out of its first committee earlier this month and moves on to the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee.

McElroy created a presentation he’s been giving to anyone who will listen. He’ll go before the City Council this week and has helped secure key endorsements for the bill from the California Fire Chiefs Association and a number of public-safety agencies.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, more than 10,000 lives are lost annually because of time-consuming transfers.

California receives 10 percent of the nation’s 250 million 9-1-1 calls, with CHP dispatchers handling nearly 50 percent of them, McElroy said.

Santa Barbara dispatchers should be getting locally made calls about 70 percent of the time, he said.

Wireless carriers make cell tower recommendations for 9-1-1 routing — proposed maps show the vast majority of local calls should go to Santa Barbara police — but McElroy said the state makes final determinations.

He estimated the average local call transfer takes 75 seconds, affecting 20 percent of calls in some way.

The legislation is intended to update a statewide system that’s struggled to keep up with ever-changing technology. The United States established the 9-1-1 call system in 1968.

Williams first got involved in the issue after the May 2014 Isla Vista massacre that left six UC Santa Barbara students dead.

Dozens of 9-1-1 calls were routed 40 miles away to Ventura, and state officials said they had requested that wireless carriers redirect calls to local stations.

By mid-2015, the state still hadn’t fixed the issue. McElroy called 9-1-1 to check, and then cell towers began redirecting calls.

The bill requires the state Office of Emergency Services to work with the CHP, local dispatch centers and the wireless industry to improve the 9-1-1 system, undertaking an annual comprehensive review and decision-making process.

McElroy was confident local dispatchers could handle more initial calls because they’re answering them anyway, only seconds later. How that would pan out in other communities and whether funding is needed hasn't been worked out.

State officials haven’t taken a stand against AB 1564, but they don’t see a problem, said Hillary Blackerby, a senior field representative for Williams.

The CHP has no official opinion on the legislation, Santa Barbara-based CHP Officer Jonathan Gutierrez said.      

McElroy has talked to tech companies, since some have developed apps that override 9-1-1 routing, but he thinks the changes should be available to everyone.

“They’re never going to have a landline,” he said of a younger millennial generation, which makes up 25 percent of the nation’s population and more than half of the workforce.

Late last year, a judge dismissed the wrongful death lawsuit Soto’s family had filed alleging gross negligence against the California Public Safety Communications, the 9-1-1 Advisory Board Work Group, the State of California, the CHP and the City of Santa Barbara and its Police Department.

Even if the legislation doesn’t go through, McElroy said he wants to fix the problem locally so he can tell Soto’s family: “We didn’t forget Jordan.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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