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911 calls arrive at dispatch centers in other areas

Recently a 911 call from Alpine ended up at the dispatch center in St Anthony, Idaho. It certainly caused some concern locally about how 911 calls are being routed in Lincoln County.

Lincoln County Homeland Security Coordinator, Jay Hokanson spoke to the issue, “I don’t want to give the impression that this is happening every day because it’s not. We’re in close contact with Bonneville and Bear Lake all the time. We can talk via radios or phones. They can forward calls to our dispatch center. That’s not a problem. It’s when a place like St. Anthony, Idaho gets a call; they probably don’t know where Etna or Alpine might be.”

Dispatchers at a distant site then have to scramble to find out more details and reroute the call back to the right dispatch center locally.

A recent post on the Lincoln County Dispatch Facebook page explains that a “person’s service provider––AT&T, Verizon, Union or Silver Star––is responsible to get a 911 call to the appropriate ‘Public Safety Answering Point or PSAP.’”

“If a 911 call goes to the wrong place,” Lincoln County Dispatch explains, “You will need to contact your provider to correct the problem.”

The post encourages citizens to keep the direct dial access numbers handy. Afton: 307-885-5231 and Kemmerer: 307-877-3971.

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Hokanson explained that calls, especially from the backcountry or higher elevations, can actually go right over the top of closer towers.

Asked how often this is happening, Hokanson said, “When cell service first started, it used to happen quite a bit, but this hasn’t happened for a few years. We just had one that went way out of the area.”

“It’s frustrating because it has to do with the limitations of cell phones. If someone is skiing at Targhee or Jackson Hole and calls 911, their call could overshoot the towers a long way. We’re not entirely sure why, but sometimes cell phone signals will take a weird bounce, whether it skips off the snow or bounces off the clouds and it goes to another tower, which places the call at a dispatch center far from where the call is originating,” said Hokanson.

Captain Brian Andrews with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office further addressed the issue.

“So what we’re seeing is we’ve had some issues come up to where, and I guess I’ll use cell phones up on Black Mountain as an example.They are in Idaho, so when people call 911, from their cell phones that call is going into Bonneville County Dispatch, and they’re needing help down in Alpine or somewhere in that area.”

Andrews explained the call then goes to Bonneville County, which delays the call coming to Lincoln County. It then takes dispatchers a matter of minutes to relay the call to the appropriate dispatcher. Every second counts when dealing with a 911 call.

“You’re not talking hours, obviously,” said Andrews, “but it does go to their dispatch, and they try to find out where that emergency is. Once they figure that out, then it goes to us. So you’re talking a few minutes to get it back to us, or when we have to call the EMS or fire or law enforcement, whatever it is. So it creates an issue with us getting them the help they need.”

Lincoln County Dispatch Supervisor, Maryanne Christensen explains “that cell carriers are responsible for programming their towers.” A cell phone owner can contact their cell provider to request their call goes to the right 911 center or PSAP. “Right now we are working with Bonneville county to reprogram the sectors of the Black Mountain tower to route the calls to our PSAP.”

A cell provider may just look at where the tower is placed on a map and sees that tower is in Idaho, so the 911 calls get routed to an Idaho agency, which in the case of Lincoln County, is not the right routing. Lincoln County borders two other states so routing is crucial when seconds count.

Hokanson explained, “We’re in the process of working with Bonneville County reworking those protocols now, so we can avoid those once-on-a-blue moon calls. We live right on the border of Idaho so we share responsibility with Bonneville, Bear Lake, and Rich Counties.”

Hokanson is trying to work with cell providers to resolve the issue, so that when calls do come in, dispatchers can pinpoint where it’s coming from and route the call to the right area.

Captain Andrews detailed what to do in the event your 911 call goes to a dispatch center unfamiliar with the area: “The biggest thing is make sure we know your location, because that’s going to help us to pinpoint where you are. We don’t get those exact locations like in a larger city. When you do call in, a lot of times we don’t get any information. So if you’re telling us where you’re at, and give us some detail where you are, we can get help to you quicker.

Andrews emphasized the importance of giving a dispatcher all the information possible and remain calm if dispatch asks you a lot of questions. They are trying to get help to the caller just as quickly as possible.