Wrong 911

by Colin Berkshire

Imagine you have just been in a serious automobile accident. Your car has been T-Boned and is totaled. Your wife is injured and needs emergency medical care.

You call 911 and they cannot locate you. They don’t know where you are, your location didn’t get transmitted to them. (Locations are rarely transmitted with any level of accuracy.) Even giving them the names of the cross streets doesn’t help.

They inform you that they are the wrong jurisdiction. They will transfer you. You ask that they please dispatch an ambulance. Please! Before they send you off can they just call an ambulance? They refuse.

Click, and you are in queue for a different dispatch center. It all starts over again. But you were transferred to the wrong jurisdiction. They transfer you again. Once again it is the wrong jurisdiction. They transfer you again and you are back to the previous one. None of these dispatchers will just call an ambulance. You tell them any ambulance would be fine.

There are only two private ambulance companies serving the county and city and either is fine. Just send one. Any one. It doesn’t matter whether you are in the city or county. Both use the same two ambulance companies.

Nope, they can’t help you. You need to be transferred to the correct jurisdiction before you can get emergency service.

Unfortunately, the scenario above is real. It happened to me in the Seattle metropolitan area, in King County.

I later spoke with a retired head of statewide 911 services. He resigned because of this same frustration. He is a very disillusioned ex-government employee. You see, a decade ago he tried to get 911 fixed. He understood the technical issues and the jurisdictional issues. But he couldn’t move things forward.

He wanted nothing more than for your location to be pinpointed on a map when you called, and he understood how to do it. And, he wanted to address the problem of jurisdictional disputes in an emergency. (“It happens all too often.”)

The problem is that 911 fees that are collected on every phone are now a very substantial tax. These funds are used to buy surveillance cameras, armored vehicles, and sometimes just go into the state’s general budget. The dollars are so substantial that anybody that insists that the 911 funds go to making 911 actually work is viewed as a threat to the state’s overall budget.

And, that, quite simply, is why when you call 911 the dispatcher doesn’t have much of a clue where you are and you may very well be talking to a dispatcher in the next city over who will refuse to help you.