Using Your Cell Phone in Emergencies

You’re cruising down Highway 101 just north of Rohnert Park Expressway. Suddenly, the raggedy blue pick-up truck in front of you coughs up an old arm chair into your lane, just yards in front of you.

But, being a great driver, you managed neatly to dodge the obstacle. Your heart is thudding as you check your rear view mirror. Yikes, the guy behind you barely avoided hitting the chair!

Better call 911 on your cell phone to be sure CHP gets that thing out of the road. This certainly qualifies as an emergency; therefore you are legal to use your cell phone without a hands-free device. You dial the easy three digit number and wait for an answer. A CHP dispatcher greets you with “911, what is your emergency?” After you answer her specific and concise questions, she tells you she will send a unit to take care of the problem and the call is over.

Terrific, this scenario works just the way it is supposed to, but what about a variation to this story? How about: you are southbound on Commerce Boulevard at Utility Court and that pesky blue pick-up accidentally dumps the chair out of its bed? Your reactions are the same as on 101: you evade the hazard and then use your cell phone to call 911.

Here’s where the hitch comes in: your cell signal hits off the nearest tower -that’s the way cell phones are programmed. Which agency will be the primary receiver of the signal is determined by a few variables, most commonly by which agency is the most likely first responder in an emergency? On the freeways and highways, it is the California Highway Patrol. That’s why when you use your cell phone to call 9-1-1; you sometimes reach them instead of the actual jurisdiction you are in. In our second scenario, Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety (RPDPS) is the correct agency however; the call is routed to the CHP dispatch center in Benicia. They answer, and after you respond to a few questions, the call will be transferred to RPDPS a moment or two later.

Thankfully, it was just a chair in the roadway. What if your mother was having trouble breathing? Depending on your cell phone and service, this call could be routed to the wrong agency first. All dispatchers everywhere are trained to screen calls, but that takes time. Your call will eventually end up at the right call center that will dispatch your local public safety personnel.

In all emergencies, seconds count. Wouldn’t it make more sense to take a few minutes ahead of any problems and pre-plan your response? Here are a few pointers to minimize your potential emergencies:

  • Know where you are-address and cross-street if possible, landmark if not
  • Pre-program your seven digit local law enforcement phone number into your phone address book. If you are not sure, call the business number of any local law enforcement agency and they can tell you.
  • Also consider areas you frequent, for example, if your elderly mother lives in Petaluma, add Petaluma Police Department to your cell phone address book.
  • For highway emergencies, call 911 for the California Highway Patrol.

When you call 911 from your home phone, the public safety answering point (aka PSAP or dispatch center) will receive instant information which includes the phone number and the address of the call. This is taken from billing info provided by the phone company that is coordinated with a county-wide computerized mapping system. Calls originating from a cell phone do not provide this feature. Depending on the level of service, some wireless service providers will give latitude and longitude of the caller and reflect the originating phone number, but some will not. Latitude and longitude aren’t precise.

In Rohnert Park, as in most of Sonoma County, any 911 call will require the dispatcher to take action. Even “hang-ups” are researched. If there is no callback phone number, we are obviously limited.

Today, answering cellular 911 calls is the industry standard for every PSAP. In Rohnert Park, the technology has been in place for over two years. Still, there are problems with any new system. We have received 911 calls from several outlying areas. Whether it is for a house fire, traffic collision or medical emergency, a misrouted 911 call will be handled quicker if the caller knows where the incident is taking place.

There’s also a variation thrown into the mix with your PC. Many phone customers use Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) as their home phone. This works fine generally. However, Denise Wallace-Hinton of RPDPS says she received a VOIP call recently. When she confirmed the address with the caller and found out he had just moved. He’d called 911 to report an emergency in the Bay Area but because the PC owner (previously) lived in Rohnert Park, the call came to DPS. It goes without saying, the call was correctly routed, but precious minutes were lost.

Why not take an active step in your safety? Follow the tips above and help us help you.

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