Calling 911 on a cell extends wait for emergency services in Trinity County

By Christine Ledman
Flapjack staff

Deep in the Emerald Triangle, response times for help can be anywhere from 10 minutes to seven hours or more depending on the distance between you and emergency services. Calling from a cell phone will always increase this response time adding a few additional minutes to 15 minutes or more depending on the situation.
911 services were installed in the early ’80s in California. All cell phone 911 calls are transferred to the California Highway Patrol’s Public Service Answering Points (PSAP). These PSAPs contact local dispatchers who will then dispatch police, fire, and ambulances. Landlines route directly to the closest local dispatcher. If you have a smart phone and have location services activated, the location will also be transferred to the PSAP to indicate exactly where you are calling from. The local PSAP will then call the local dispatcher and provide this information.
Trinity County does not have a PSAP. Cell phone calls from this area this area are routed to the PSAP in Redding or Sacramento. These folks hundreds of miles away will take the information from the caller and then relay this information to the Trinity County Sheriff’s dispatch, who will then page the needed assistance. Again, calling 911 from a landline will go directly to the Trinity dispatcher.
Hayfork and Weaverville have ambulance services available 24 X 7.
“We have seen delays of up to 10 minutes or more by the time we get the page,” said Ryan Howell, an employee of the Trinity County Life Support Ambulance Service.
Howell also said that 10 minutes can be the difference between life and death.
If location services is not turned on the delay can be even longer. The caller may have to describe where they are since there are not visible street addresses in most the county. Determining which county the call is originating from can be a major problem for the PSAP if the location is not forwarded with the call. It may take several minutes for the PSAP to determine which dispatcher needs to be contacted. This situation could possibly happen anywhere in California if the caller does not know what county they are in.
Trinity County has 13 small Volunteer Fire Departments. Roman Rubalcaba, a retired professional fireman became the Fire Chief in Hayfork. Rubalcaba said that the Hayfork Volunteer Fire Department of twelve people, 8 men and 4 women, receive approximately forty calls a month for fire, medical, and car accidents.
“I am working with the public to help them understand that if you call from a land line the call will go directly to the dispatcher in the Trinity County’s Sheriff Department, for the fastest response,” said Rubalcaba. “Many people here only have cells phones which just adds to our response time and sometimes makes it very difficult for us to find them, even if they are at home”.
One of the firefighters is Lisa Hammill of Hayfork.
“Sometimes we have to search for callers by location description and knowing there has already been quite a bit of time since the call came in it just adds to urgency of the situation,” said Hamill.
Hamill also spoke of the cell phone issue and how she is working with everyone she meets to make sure they understand how to set their phone up for fastest response.
Another option rather than 911 is to call directly to the Trinity County Sheriff’s office. The dispatcher said they received 7436 calls in 2016. They couldn’t provide how many of them were 911. One suggestion they had was to fill out a form to register your cell phone number with your home address and provide it to them. This would allow your home address to pop up if you do make a call to the Sheriff’s office rather than 911. It also allows them to reach out to you with urgent law enforcement or safety messages.
This number could be busy, so you might have to call back several times to speak to someone.
The Trinity Sheriff’s Department consists of the Sheriff and 7 deputies. This small crew covers 3,208 square miles and is backed up by the California Highway Patrol. A ten-minute delay in calling for help can make a big difference when the closest law enforcement may already be several hours away.
The quickest response times will always come from landlines but they are expensive. Most of Trinity County has only one provider, Verizon, so residents can’t shop around. The Federal Government has a program called Lifeline that assists low income people in getting cell phones and land lines. The Verizon representative said to qualify you have to have a valid non post office box mailing address which nobody has in Trinity County.
Trinity County Supervisor Bobbi Chadwick, a long-time Hayfork residence, was not aware of the situation with 911 calls.
“This is news to me, but sure seems like something that we should look into,” said Chadwick.
John Fenley, another Trinity County Supervisor was aware of the 911 differences.
“It is possible to ask Verizon to change this, but due to the cellular network configuration there is no guarantee that the call is originating in Trinity County,” said Fenley.
It does not look like there will be changes in the routing of 911 calls in Trinity County or anywhere in California at any time soon so it is important to have your cell phone set-up to provide your location information to assist in the fastest help possible.

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