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Know before you dial: 911 calls can be misrouted

The rumble of a car muffler and hum of a garage door opening awoke Los Altos resident Maria Porch and her family just after 1:30 a.m. last week. When Porch investigated, she discovered a strange man inside her Winding Way garage. Others awaited in the getaway car.

“They were trying to basically steal all our bikes,” Porch said. “They had put my daughter’s bike on my bike rack when I ran outside and started screaming. They didn’t secure the bike on the bike rack, and they ran over it with my car and just drove away.”

Law enforcement authorities recovered Porch’s crashed and abandoned Toyota Sequoia in San Jose hours after the June 25 incident. Their assumption is the thieves jimmied the SUV’s door, operated the garage door opener inside of it and then used shaved keys or bypassed wires to drive away with the vehicle.

The incident was frightening for Porch and her family, doubly so because law enforcement officials didn’t arrive at the scene until nearly 30 minutes after the first 911 call.

Their experience, however, sheds light on a potential challenge faced by residents living in unincorporated parts of the county, as Porch does: the potential for misrouted emergency calls made from cellphones.

Most traditional landline 911 systems automatically report the caller’s location to emergency officials, but cellphones are not associated with fixed locations or addresses, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

“While the location of the cell site closest to the 911 caller may provide a general indication of the caller’s location, that information is not always specific enough for rescue personnel to deliver assistance to the caller quickly,” according to the FCC.

When Porch and her family called 911 at 1:36 a.m., their call was mistakenly routed to the California Highway Patrol – likely because of their home’s close proximity to Interstate 280, said Capt. Rich Urena of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office.

“Unfortunately, this does happen,” Urena said. “Technology can only do so much.”

Prioritizing calls

The Sheriff’s Office, the correct responding agency, didn’t learn about the call from the CHP until 1:47 a.m. Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched at 1:53 a.m., and they arrived at 2:05 a.m., a total span of 18 minutes. The agency’s target response time for Priority 1 calls (life-or-death emergency situations, typically involving lights and sirens) is 9 minutes, followed by 14 minutes for Priority 2 calls (crimes against a person not considered life threatening) and 25 minutes for Priority 3 calls (nonemergencies). Urena said the Winding Way burglary and theft would be classified as a Priority 2-type call.

Although emergency calls within city limits are automatically directed to that city’s designated law enforcement agency (for Los Altos, the Los Altos Police Department; for Los Altos Hills, the Sheriff’s Office, etc.), calls from unincorporated parts of the county are meant to be routed through the Santa Clara County 9-1-1 Communications Department, which then directs them to the appropriate agency, Urena said. In addition to dialing 911, local residents who are concerned about the potential for misrouted emergency calls made from their cellphones can call the Communications Department directly at (408) 299-3233.

The existence of an alternative emergency number comes as a surprise to Porch, who said she would have dialed it had she known. Instead, she and her husband called 911 five times – and waited.

“God forbid this happens to one of my neighbors, and they’re stuck like we were,” Porch said. “I don’t want that to happen again.”

For more information on how emergency communication systems work, visit the FCC website at fcc.gov/consumers/guides/emergency-communications.

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