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Calling 911 and waiting?
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The 9-1-1 emergency phone system has been accessible via cellular phone for many years, and while it is a critical tool in emergency situations, the system has had some shortcomings. These shortcomings are to be expected with most new systems and it generally takes a number of years to work out the problems.

The most frequent problems involve long periods (many rings) of time before an emergency operator answers when 9-1-1 is dialed from a cellular phone. And then, because the emergency operator is often many miles away from the reported incident, they have to spend time researching which emergency response agency is closest to the call. Having used the system myself, I know that just a few minutes in an emergency situation can seem like hours.

At this time, the city of Ceres and many other communities are installing new telephone equipment that will begin to eliminate some of the problems described above in this immediate area. Specifically, as an example, when you dial 9-1-1 from a cell phone in the Stanislaus County area, the call goes to a California Highway Patrol dispatch center in Atwater. Once that dispatcher obtains the information, the call is then transferred to the appropriate agency, like Ceres or Modesto. A cell call can sometimes take 10 or more rings before it is answered, and is often placed in a queue until a dispatcher is available to speak with the caller. Once the CHP dispatcher is on the line, the call is transferred to the local agency.

With the new system, some calls will go directly to the nearest emergency communications center, where the dispatchers have familiarity with the area and the emergency services agencies. The system will also allow us to see the location from which the call is being made, along with the caller's phone number.

Overall, the system will improve emergency services, while it may also have some negative impacts. The biggest problem is that the 9-1-1 system receives many calls that do not qualify as emergencies. We still have many 9-1-1 callers requesting directions, seeking legal information and the like. With the "old" system, the inappropriate 9-1-1 calls were screened out by the CHP dispatchers. Now, the local agencies will have to screen them out themselves, at the expense of tying up critical emergency phone lines and taxing already busy dispatchers. We expect a 20-30 percent increase in calls with the new system and based on a two year average of 793 emergency 9-1-1 calls per month, the number will climb to a 1,000 per month average. These 9-1-1 calls are in addition to the 6,900 non-emergency calls received every month.

Despite the potential negatives, we believe that the new system will improve services overall with great benefits for persons involved in traffic collisions and other emergencies. I should also explain that the 9-1-1 system improvements are occurring incrementally, so not all areas will be upgraded simultaneously. Furthermore, the system will continue to improve as new cellular telephone repeater sites are added. As each repeater is added, the system is able to become more localized with the net result being that the emergency operators will have greater location specificity for each call.

We do ask that all callers reserve 9-1-1 exclusively for situations that threaten life or property. For other situations, please use our non-emergency number: (209) 538-5713.