SACRAMENTO, CA - While most police agencies in the state now answer their own wireless 911 calls, callers in Sacramento still face unnecessary delays because they're forced to repeat themselves to multiple dispatchers.
The Sacramento County Sheriff's Department and Sacramento Police Department still rely on the California Highway Patrol to answer and then transfer mobile 911 calls placed in their jurisdictions.
Nearly three-quarters of all 911 calls now originate from mobile phones, according to the California Technology Agency's Public Safety Communications Office.
The most recent figures available from the CHP showed 20 percent of all wireless 911 calls coming into the Rancho Cordova communications center are transferred to the Sacramento police and sheriff's departments.
News10 reviewed a sampling of transferred 911 calls showing the process takes anywhere from a few seconds to more than a half minute.
Both local agencies agreed the arrangement is not ideal but was necessary because of equipment and staffing issues.
"People are worried about the delay and clearly there is a delay," said Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones. "My guess is that in most cases, the delay is seconds and not minutes, but there is a delay."
A state tax on wireless phones reimburses local agencies for 911 equipment, but Jones said the sheriff's communications system is so antiquated it can't accept the wireless 911 interface.
Sacramento Police Department spokesman Sgt. Andrew Pettit said the city's new communications center has the proper equipment, but not enough people to answer the extra wireless calls.
"We have the technology to field all those wireless 911 calls but unfortunately we don't have the staffing," Pettit said.
In addition to answering mobile 911 calls for the police and sheriff's departments, CHP dispatchers screen hangups, crank calls and multiple calls reporting the same incident, which reduces the workload on the police and sheriff dispatchers.
The city of Elk Grove is among the roughly 500 local police and fire agencies in California answering their own wireless 911 calls.
Dispatch manager Lynn Bowler said cell sites in Elk Grove were routed to the city's communications center in August 2007, and last year 64 percent of all incoming 911 calls were wireless.
"It's just one less person that has to screen the call, and we're very pleased that we're able to do that for the community of Elk Grove," Bowler said.
California doesn't require local agencies to answer their own wireless 911 calls, but strongly recommends that they do so.
The state's Public Safety Communications Office says routing of calls locally usually provides much better response times and relieves the load on CHP dispatchers.
"Ultimately this could save lives," according to the PSCO website.
CHP Lt. Andy Williams said the Rancho Cordova dispatch center had not been adversely impacted by the police and sheriff's wireless 911 calls, but that he would "welcome" the local agencies answering their own calls.
Only 20 local dispatch centers statewide still defer their wireless 911 calls to the CHP, and most of them are small town or campus police departments.
The Auburn Police Department is one of them.
Chief John Ruffcorn said older equipment and a staffing shortage have prevented his dispatchers from accepting wireless 911 calls directly.
Ruffcorn said a new computer-aided dispatch system being installed in the next year or two will not only give Auburn the technical ability to accept wireless calls, but will also automate some tasks that will allow dispatchers to handle the extra call volume.
Pettit, the Sacramento police spokesman, said his department is in talks with the state to experiment with a limited number of cell sites to gauge the added workload.
Jones said an equipment upgrade allowing wireless calls to be answered directly at the sheriff's dispatch center will cost as much as $3 million, but that he's committed to finding the money.
"We would definitely like to be able to take our own cellular 911 calls and that will definitely be part of our plan moving forward," Jones said.
By George Warren, GWarren@news10.net