Emergency dispatch protocols cross river

Local 911 calls can be answered in Ore.; callers urged to know location

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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Imagine this: You're on the bank of the Columbia River in Vancouver's Wintler Park when you see a swimmer in distress. You call 911, only to get connected with dispatchers in Multnomah County. What gives?

The routing of 911 calls from cellphones is based off the location of the tower that cellphone is using, explains Katy Myers, operations manager for Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency. Nearby towers in Clark County might be busy or the cellphone may get better reception with a tower across the river -- resulting in the mix-up.

Clark County's local 911 center gets calls from Washington, Multnomah and Columbia counties in Oregon and they get calls from local residents. As more and more people rely primarily on cellphones, the 911 switcheroo happens more often.

After a caller explains where he or she is, it takes seconds to get transferred to the correct 911 center, along with all the notes associated with the emergency call. The real danger is when people don't know their location, Myers said.

"Lots of people seem to think we know where they are because of the GPS on their phone," she said. "We don't have pinpointed addresses for people who call from a cellphone."

At best, cellphones give dispatchers an idea of the area someone is in. Landlines, by contrast, are attached to an address and a homeowner.

Calls along the river are the most susceptible to being routed incorrectly, which means late-summer beachcombers and boaters should be particularly aware of their location when calling for emergency services.

Myers advises people to take a look at their surroundings when they call 911. What is the name of the place? What street is it on? Are there any land markers that might help the dispatcher figure out where you are?

As much as we like to rely on our phone's GPS to get us places, there's no technological solution on the horizon to prevent this mix-up from happening, officials say. It's up to callers to know where they are when an emergency occurs. When calling 911 from a cellphone, CRESA advises people to give their street address and city.