Who you going to call?

Area cell phone callers to 911 encounter delays, busy signals
By: Jenifer Gee Journal Staff Writer
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Russell Whitney was just leaving his mom’s apartment in Auburn after feeding her cat when he noticed something that made him stop and reach for his cell phone. Smoke was beginning to cut through the air from a fire in a field near other homes and a development. He dialed 911 to report the incident and got an unexpected answer – a busy signal. Whitney said he never got through but someone else must have because fire personnel quickly arrived and immediately controlled the situation. “It was one of those things that by the grace of God some terrible disaster was averted by the quick response of the fire department,” Whitney said. The idea that he couldn’t easily reach and emergency response member was disconcerting, he said. “It seemed like it (911) clogged pretty fast on a cell phone,” Whitney said. Whitney isn’t the only cell phone user who has encountered a delay when trying to report an emergency via the 911 systems. Local law enforcement, however, say they are addressing the problem and updating a system that was built in the late 1970s as fast as they can to catch up with the mass cell phone use in today’s world. “We are well aware that people have to stay on hold. We are well aware they sometimes get a busy signal,” said Kelly Baraga, public information officer for the Auburn area California Highway Patrol. “We’re trying to do the best we can to remedy it. With more and more people using cell phones, it’s really hard to stay up with the need.” Currently, all 911 calls from a cell phone are directed to a main California Highway Patrol center in the region. From there, operators determine whether to dispatch a CHP officer or direct the caller to a city law enforcement agency. The dispatch center, located in Rancho Cordova, fields about 90,000 911 cell phone calls a month, Baraga said. As a result, callers sometimes don’t receive service as fast as they might expect, Baraga said. Colfax resident Kari Bast said she encountered a delayed response one June night when she was attempting to report a drunk driver driving in front of her. “I was kind of panicking because it was the first time I had ever called and reported someone like that,” Bast said. Bast said her initial call to 911 went unanswered. When she did get through to a dispatcher, she was transferred to a police officer and received a voice mail message. “I was put on hold for so long by the time I got a call back from the police station I had no idea where he (the driver) went. I followed him as long as I could.” Baraga said area law enforcement agencies are working to update their technology so cell phone calls can be automatically directed to the area law enforcement agency they need. Cell phone calls to 911 made from Roseville are now directed to Roseville dispatch centers. Baraga said other cities are currently working to have the same service. The Placer County Sheriff’s Office is one agency that’s in the midst of updating its technology so it can begin to take cell phone calls dialed in its jurisdiction, according to Lt. Jeff Ausnow, sheriff’s office public information officer. While that technology may not be implemented for another six months to a year, Ausnow said the office’s dispatch center currently uses an enhanced 911 system. Calls coming in from a landline automatically display the address to the dispatcher. Both Ausnow and Baraga suggest that residents program in the numbers of local law enforcement agencies into their cell phone. If they are in a city’s jurisdiction, try calling them first if possible. “If you have the local police department programmed in your telephone and you’re within city limits of that jurisdiction, it’s almost as easy to press wherever you have that number stored,” Ausnow said. “It’s probably as quick if not quicker than calling 911 sometimes.” Baraga said often when the CHP dispatch receives a domestic abuse call or hears of a circumstance in a city’s jurisdiction, that call will most likely be transferred to the appropriate agency. If motorists are in an unincorporated area or driving on an interstate or highway, call 911 or the CHP. As always, if it is a true, emergency, do not hesitate to dial 911, Baraga said. “I know it’s a lot of frustration for people making the phone calls,” Baraga said. “We are doing the best we can with the resources we have available.” The Journal's Jenifer Gee can be reached at or post a comment.