On her first try, Olivia Strozer got the recording, a toneless voice that instructed her to wait: All the 911 operators were busy.
Nearby, 2-year-old Brandon Lott lay shot and gasping for breath in his mother’s arms, the victim of a Fourth of July drive-by shooting in Los Angeles.
Eighteen seconds ticked by in silence and, panic rising, Strozer redialed. Again and again the maddening recording clicked on.
On the fourth try--after 20 minutes--she gave up on 911 and dialed the operator, who helped her summon an ambulance through the Fire Department.
Paramedics reached Brandon Lott in time to save his life, but he remains in a rehabilitation hospital, paralyzed from the waist down with an uncertain prognosis.
There is no indication that the child’s future would be brighter if help had reached him sooner, but Los Angeles police officials concede that the incident points up a serious problem with the city’s 6-year-old 911 emergency calling system.
“She wasn’t able to get through because our system is completely overloaded,” said Capt. Forrest G. Lewallen, commander of the LAPD’s communications division. “Twenty minutes can make the critical difference in severely wounded people who are bleeding heavily.
“When this lady finally got through to us she was righteously panicked. . . . She got the recording and felt, I guess, that nobody would answer the call.”
Police Department statistics indicate that increasing numbers of people are becoming frustrated with long waits on 911 calls and simply hang up. So far this year, more than 71,000 calls to 911 have gone unanswered. Lewallen predicts that the number will be well over 100,000 for 1990.
Another 700,000 calls made by the public to seven-digit police lines also will go unanswered this year, he predicted.
At the center of the problem, police officials say, is an outmoded system that is not worth fixing. Instead, they are lobbying for a brand new 911 and radio communication system with a $235-million price tag.
Last week, the Los Angeles City Council approved a bond measure for the November ballot that would provide that money. Mayor Tom Bradley is expected to sign it. Bradley also wants to write the ballot argument in support of the proposal.
The measure, which needs approval by two-thirds of the voters, will cost the owner of the average 1,500-square-foot home $26.25 a year for the next 20 years, according to an analysis by the City Administrative Office.
For their money, taxpayers will get two new 911 centers to replace the one center now operating in a fourth-level sub-basement at City Hall East. Police officials argue that two centers are necessary because an earthquake or other natural disaster in a one-center system could knock out virtually all emergency communication.
“If this center goes down today, there will be nobody answering 911 lines,” Lewallen said.
The center, which opened in 1984 after more than a decade of planning and years of delays, cost $50 million and was obsolete and overloaded almost from the beginning.
Fifty-eight police operators, about half answering 911 lines, sit at computer terminals in a darkened and windowless room. Unmovable keyboards have contributed to the development of wrist and hand problems among operators, Lewallen said, and the glare produced by the unmovable terminal screens necessitates dim lighting.
But the key problem is the limited number of terminals that can be devoted to 911 calls, he said. During the day, most calls are answered immediately, but on the evening shift overloads frequently occur.
The problem reached a critical point this year on the Fourth of July, when a record 9,000 calls came in on the evening shift. That number includes all calls from the public, on both 911 and seven-digit lines.
Like Olivia Strozer, most callers were greeted with the recording.
“We had everybody working and the system was completely overloaded,” Lewallen said. “We were answering calls as fast as we possibly could. Every seat in the house was taken and if we had extra people we couldn’t put them to work because we had no more room.”
If the bond measure is approved, police officials envision one center in the San Fernando Valley built in conjunction with a police station and one in another part of the metropolitan area outside of downtown. Officials see no reason to have the 500 employees of the communications division commute downtown, where parking is scarce.
In all, the new centers would cost $105 million, leaving $130 million to replace and expand the police radio system.
The radio project would allow the Police Department to begin using 39 radio channels allotted to them in 1988 by the Federal Communications Commission. If the channels remain unused past the end of 1995, the LAPD will have to forfeit them.
“We’ve already lost a year and a half because we don’t have the money,” Lewallen said. “This is a valuable resource that is not going to come back again.”
The bond fund request has met with almost no resistance and little debate on the City Council, which gave it unanimous approval.
“Modern technology is moving so rapidly and we just have to keep moving with it,” said Council President John Ferraro.
Councilman Richard Alatorre, chairman of the committee that oversees the Police Department, said the system is “archaic” and the cost of attempting to fix it is prohibitive.
One problem that can be fixed at no cost, police officials say, is the high number of non-emergency calls that take up the time of 911 operators. As many as 70% of all calls to 911 are not about emergency matters, according to Lewallen, and many are just plain frivolous.
That problem has plagued the system from its beginning on Oct. 1, 1984, when Bradley took one of the first calls and shook his head in disbelief. The caller wanted to know how to get a hunting license.
“If the public only called 911 on emergencies, we wouldn’t be tying up that resource,” Lewallen said.
A loud party at a neighbor’s house or a screeching car alarm is not a 911 emergency under LAPD guidelines. Nor is a dispute over car insurance or a complaint about a street vendor selling flowers in front of a flower shop.
Calls about such annoyances should be made to local police phone numbers listed in the government pages at the front of phone books, police say.