CITYWIDE — Dialing 911 from a cell phone used to be a gamble for those trying to reach the Santa Monica Police Department. Oftentimes the call would be answered by the California Highway Patrol, which was overloaded, leaving some callers on hold for minutes at a time.
Not any more.
Now those who call for help within Santa Monica’s borders will more often than not be connected immediately with a local dispatcher following a move by the SMPD to take some of the load off the CHP and provide better service to residents.
And on top of that, dispatchers now have the ability to locate on a map the location of the caller by sending a signal to their cell phone, helping officers respond to the scene of an emergency faster, said Eric Uller, lead public safety systems analyst for the SMPD.
The change happened roughly one year ago. Since then, Uller said there has been a 10 to 15 percent increase in 911 calls received from cell phones.
“[The CHP] is so overloaded that some people just hang up so those calls never reached us,” Uller said. “Now, because we have levels to accept those calls … people don’t hang up.”
Routing calls to the CHP has historically been the practice, dating back to when wireless phones were mounted on the console in a car. As a result, the vast majority of calls came from the road.
As cell phones have become more portable — the newer models even equipped with a global positioning system — the responsibility of answering emergency calls are slowly being transitioned from the CHP to local public safety agencies as part of a statewide program mandated by the Federal Communications Commission. That mandate was made in 1994 and called on cell phone companies to provide law enforcement with the number and location of the person calling for help.
That was impossible to do given the limited technology at the time. However, in 2000, technology caught up and the FCC set deadlines. The SMPD did not reach out to the CHP to take the load off their hands until Chief Tim Jackman came on the scene, Uller said.
“When the chief arrived, he realized the importance of this technology and wanted us to deploy it right away,” Uller said.
That order sparked a series of meetings between Uller and the CHP to determine which cell towers the two agencies would be responsible for. Because the I-10 Freeway cuts through Santa Monica, Uller had to work more closely with the CHP to reach a compromise.
“We wanted as many cell sectors as we could get because that meant we could provide better service,” Uller said. “We are not obligated to accept calls directly, but it is something we wanted to do.”
There were not added costs associated with the transfer of calls, Uller said.
The system isn’t perfect. If someone is calling from an area near the city limits, the phone signal may bounce off a cell tower in Los Angeles, routing the call to the LAPD. It all depends on location and what type of service a person has. Uller said someone with Verizon can call 911 from inside the Public Safety Facility in the Civic Center and be connected to CHP, while another could be in the same location, but with AT&T and get SMPD dispatch.
That said, the transition has made it easier for residents to get the response they are looking for and has helped dispatchers in pinpointing a callers position.
There are the occasional “butt dialers,” or people who accidentally call 911 by sitting on their phones, but for the most part the transition is working, Uller said.
According to state officials, 364 of 391 law enforcement agencies in California have made the switch and are handling all 911 calls.