PSI: A technology gap in 911 calls

by Jamie Boll - bio l email | produced by Jeff Keene - email

CHEROKEE COUNTY, SC (WBTV) - It was a frantic 911 call from a panicked wife about a dying husband.

"I was at home," said Christine Bridges.

Bridges lives just a quarter mile from her brother, Ted Huffman, when his wife came rushing to her door.  Bridges knows CPR so she jumped in the car and raced down the road.

"We really needed some equipment to help him with breathing," said Bridges.

Help wouldn't arrive for more than 20 minutes. Her brother didn't make it.

"Waiting there all that time with someone you love and you can't do anything," said Bridges. "That helplessness, it was just devastating."

A number of factors combined to slow the response time.  The calls for help came from cell phones from the Huffman home which is in Cherokee County, South Carolina.  The calls hit a cell phone tower about two miles away in Cleveland County, North Carolina.  It routed the calls to the 911 center in Shelby, North Carolina.

Dispatchers had to transfer the call to Gaffney, back in Cherokee County.  Cleveland County operators told the callers to hang on the line while they made the transfer, but in at least one case the caller hung up.

"You don't hear them dialing someone else," said Bridges. "You don't hear anything.  It's like they're hanging up."

Delisa Coggins is director of Cherokee County's 911 center.  She says when calls are transferred from Cleveland County, not only can there be confusion, they also lose critical data. Phone numbers and addresses that dispatchers rely on to send help do not transfer with the call.

"It causes quite a bit of delay because then we have to take the information and actually type it on the screen," said Coggins.

"It's a daily occurrence," said Todd Sims.

Sims is operations manager for Mecklenburg County's Medic 911 center.  He says 67% of all their calls come cell phones.  Those calls will hit the nearest available cell tower.  He says they have received calls from as far away as Washington, D.C.

If those calls hit a county, or even a state over the information is often lost in transfers because different counties use different phone line providers.  Mecklenburg County's provider is AT&T.  Some neighboring counties rely on Verizon.

The solution to the transfer problem is what's called Next Generation 911.  Right now, the data from your phone is sent to a traditional phone line.  Next Generation will funnel into an IP line similar to what your computer uses.

"The data being pushed back and forth (will be) in a format that is vendor agnostic," said Sims. "So we can understand it."

Next Generation 911 is still a couple years away.  In the meantime, they suggest you use a land line when possible when calling 911 to ensure it goes to the correct responders.  If you do call on a cell phone, they say it's important to say immediately what county you are calling from to ensure the quickest response.

Technology isn't the only issue facing the people who live on Huffman Hill in Cherokee County.

"You can't get there from here," said Coggins.

You certainly can't get there easily. Emergency responders in Gaffney have to go up into North Carolina and then back into South Carolina, down the only road into the neighborhood.

"We are lost in time," said Bridges.

The closes emergency responders to Huffman Hill are just six miles away, but they are in Grover, North Carolina.  A solution is in the works.  Upstate Carolina Medical Center EMS is working on putting together a mutual aid agreement.  It would allow Grover Rescue to answer the calls on Huffman Hill in the hopes of reducing response times.

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