The 911 emergency system in Los Angeles was a lifeline this month to a woman whose home in the Highland Park area was being burglarized.
Hobbled by a leg cast, and terrified of being discovered, she barricaded herself in a bedroom and dialed 911. The operator dispatched a police squad car, and within minutes a suspect was taken into custody as he fled over a fence.
The failures of the system have been just as spectacular when the volume of calls exceeds the number of phone lines and operators available to handle them.
In a highly publicized case last July 4, a woman frantically dialed 911 for 20 minutes seeking help for a toddler wounded in a drive-by shooting. Each time she reached a recorded message: the 911 operators were busy. A telephone company operator finally summoned an ambulance directly from the Fire Department--and the child received medical care.
City officials worry that others may not be so fortunate. More callers each year get the recording instead of prompt help through 911 or the Police Department’s regular phone lines. Last year, 1 million people--roughly one out of five callers--did not wait long enough for an operator to take their calls.
“That’s waiting and listening to the stupid recording while someone is kicking in your door,” said Los Angeles Police Sgt. John Emerson, who supervises the staff of operators.
City officials and a coalition of civic leaders say the only solution is replacing the entire police communications systems with one able to accommodate current calls and grow with the city’s population.
A $235-million bond issue--Proposition 1 on the April 9 ballot--would provide the money to do that, through a property tax increase determined by building size. The owner of a 1,500-square-foot home would see a hike of about $12.75 a year for the next 20 years.
“That’s only a dollar a month for an average household, and that gives you comfort for saving your life or your grandparent’s life, or your neighbor’s,” said Richard Riordan, a Los Angeles businessman who is heading the Yes on Prop. 1 Committee.
Support also is coming from the Japanese and Korean business communities, several major corporations and civic groups.
Although sharply critical of the Police Department and Chief Daryl F. Gates over the savage beating of Rodney G. King, the local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League joined Mayor Tom Bradley at a press conference this month to urge support for the department on the 911 issue.
“We are trying to get people to use their common sense and not shoot themselves in the foot because of anger with Daryl Gates on another issue,” said Joseph Duff, president of the Los Angeles branch of NAACP.
An opposition committee--No on Prop. 1--was recently organized by apartment and commercial building owners and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.
The group objects to financing the project through property taxes and to what committee Chairman Michael N. Silver says is an attempt to sneak the measure through on a “little-watched, off-season ballot.”
Five months ago, an identical measure on the Nov. 6 ballot failed to win the required two-thirds majority for passage. Called Proposition J, it was favored by only 56.54% of the voters.
Proponents believe the measure got lost among numerous state and local spending propositions on an extremely crowded ballot--and should be put before the voters again.
The bonds would finance the construction of two new communications centers, at a cost of $105 million. One would be in the San Fernando Valley, the other in another part of the city outside downtown, where parking for the 500 communications employees would be easier.
The expansion to two centers would double the number of operators dedicated to 911 lines. Currently there are only 12 for the city’s 3.5 million residents. Overall, the number of police operators would increase from 58 to 100, with the capacity to add 40 more computer terminals and dispatchers.
The remaining $130 million would be used to revamp the communications system between police stations and officers in the field. Some police divisions now have to share radio frequencies, causing communications delays. Under the proposed system, police would have an additional 39 radio channels and better equipment.
Since 1984, the communications center has been located in a City Hall sub-basement that previously had been designated as a bomb shelter.
The location is a major problem. For one thing, a sizable earthquake downtown could bury it, according to Emerson, who has shuddered through five earthquakes in the 3 1/2 years he has been assigned to the communications center.
If an earthquake knocked out the system, there would be no central means to dispatch police, fire and ambulances. Residents would have to directly call individual police or fire stations, which have few incoming lines, Emerson said. But if two centers were built, one could back up the other.
Another problem is the capacity of the current system, which in addition to 911 handles all outside calls to the seven-digit police lines and radio communications between police stations and officers in the field.
“The system is obsolete,” said Riordan.
The main computer is operating at capacity and cannot be expanded. The system was installed in 1984 at a cost of $50 million. A decade of planning and delay preceded its launching. But in just two years, the volume of calls began to exceed the system’s capacity, officials said.
In 1987, 470,600 of 3,991,068 calls were listed officially as “abandoned,” meaning the caller hung up before an operator was free.
In 1991, police officials project total calls at 5.7 million, of which 1.2 million will not get through to an operator.
Proposition 1 proponents say they are more optimistic about the bond proposal this time around. Riordan said he has raised $550,000 for a publicity campaign, compared to only $90,000 last fall.
An increasing number of calls to Los Angeles’ 911 lines and the Police Department’s regular phone lines go unanswered because there are not enough operators and lines, officials say. Last year, 1 million people--roughtly one out of five callers--did not wait long enough for an operator to take their calls. Proposition 1--a $235-million bond issue on the April 9 ballot--would replace the system with one that officials say will meet the city’s present and future needs.
Calls received: 2.9
Calls received: 4.0
Calls unanswerd: .5
Calls received: 4.2
Calls unanswerd: .6
Calls received: 4.6
Calls unanswerd: .5
Calls received: 5.2
Calls unanswerd: 1.0
Calls received: 5.7
Calls unanswerd: 1.2 Note: Includes calls made to 911 emergency systems and other Police Department lines.