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Desperate Calls Into the Void : Despite Prop. M, L.A. 911 system is inadequate

Imagine it. Home invaders breaking down your front door. A potential rapist climbing through the bedroom window. You dial 911 and your attempt to cry out for help becomes one of the one-third of emergency calls in Los Angeles that are not answered within the city’s 10-second target time. If you’re a Spanish speaker, you may have to wait 20 minutes.

Voters were led to believe that this problem was solved when they approved Proposition M, a $235-million 1992 bond measure to upgrade the city’s 911 system. Yet after nearly four years, little of substance has been done. Los Angeles residents broke records last year in having to abandon emergency calls to the system. Through September, nearly 200,000 callers to 911 gave up after they were put on hold.

“This is a very serious public safety problem that should be addressed immediately,” Carroll Buracker, a nationally recognized consultant, said of the city’s 911 system.

The Promise. During the campaign for Proposition M, its backers promised that the measure would be “a good deal for taxpayers.” They offered no timetable but they promised “immediate improvements” to the 911 system. Los Angeles would build two state-of-the-art 911 emergency dispatch centers, one in the San Fernando Valley and one in Westchester. Meanwhile, officials said, the existing 911 operations center in City Hall East would receive new equipment to provide better emergency response until the improved system was on line.

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The Reality. City Hall staffers now say that most of the so-called “immediate” improvements pledged in 1992 won’t be in place until the year 2000, nearly a decade after voters approved them. As for upgrades to the existing system, the City Council has not even gotten around to funding the project.

The Blame. The Los Angeles Police Department’s in-house task force bears some responsibility. “Weak project manager controls” and a lack of goals and standards were also problems. So said City Controller Rick Tuttle in a letter to LAPD Chief Willie L. Williams. And the chief, in turn, complained about a “cumbersome and exhaustive system of regulations and review processes.”

City Councilman Michael Feuer thinks a czar should be appointed to ensure a speedier and more cost-effective completion of taxpayer-approved bond projects. It’s a good idea. But if we appoint a czar for everything that ought to be done by people already on the payroll, we’re going to look less and less like Los Angeles and more and more like Imperial Russia.

Problems in emergency communications systems are not uncommon. The cities of Orange County, for instance, are still haggling over a system to link their law enforcement, public works and fire agencies in emergencies.

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But Los Angeles officials have again dropped the ball. Small wonder that the voters here so often slam their wallets shut when a bond measure shows up on the ballot.


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