A proliferation of car phones statewide has resulted in an explosion of 911 calls to the California Highway Patrol and raised serious doubts about its future capacity to handle them.
Cellular calls to the CHP have skyrocketed from about 29,000 in 1985 to a projected 2.8 million this year. And at the Highway Patrol's Los Angeles communications center, the busiest in the state, the number has gone from 13,048 in 1985 to about 516,000 last year.
"There are times when the phones don't stop," said Vicki Mosconi, a supervisor at the CHP's Santa Ana communications center, where the calls have increased from 110,000 in 1993 to 140,000 last year.
One result is that during peak hours, and especially when freeway accidents occur, increasing numbers of people who call 911 from their cars are getting busy signals. CHP officials say they have no way of tracking precisely how often that happens, but are convinced that it has grown from being an occasional occurrence to a daily one. And even those who get through, they say, often are put on hold.
"They're probably waiting two to three times longer," Pedersen said. "That's maybe a minute to a minute and a half, compared to half a minute four years ago. If you're upset and trying to report something on the freeway, though, that minute and a half is a long time."
The problem is technology.
Unlike 911 calls from fixed points, those from cellular phones cannot be routed automatically to appropriate local agencies. Therefore, they all go to the nearest CHP center, where operators must evaluate them, determine their point of origin and either send help or transfer them to other agencies.
What no one anticipated was the dramatic increase in car phones in a state that now has 3.5 million cellular subscribers, a number that is expanding by about 40% a year.
"In 1985, it was the businessperson's tool," said Leah Senitte, 911 program manager for the state of California. "Now it's everyone's safety blanket."
In Los Angeles, 25 to 45 operators, depending on the time of day, handle as many as 1,800 cellular calls daily. The same operators also are expected to take about 1,300 calls from roadside call boxes and another 1,000 from various other phones.
"As we get more and more calls, it's going to become a bigger and bigger problem. It's becoming harder and harder for us to get the number of people we need to answer these calls," said supervisor Darlene Pedersen,who now presses employees to work an average of 1,700 overtime hours a month, compared to 200 five years ago.
In Orange County, five to 10 operators field an average of 400 cellular 911 calls a day in addition to about 300 from roadside call boxes. Overtime has doubled since 1992, said Dwight McKenna, center commander.
"Our department is concerned," he said. "The number of calls is rising significantly, and we don't have the staffing to handle them."
The situation is exacerbated by two factors, Senitte said: callers who abuse the system by calling with nonemergencies, and the fact that every freeway accident now generates a small flood of calls. With hundreds of cars passing the same accident, she said, "You can get a lot of calls before the emergency vehicle gets there." As a result, she said, major accidents now routinely generate upward of 30 calls apiece.
CHP officials say they are planning a statewide media campaign to educate the public about the proper use of 911. While it is completely appropriate to call 911 about any emergency ranging from an accident to a drunk or reckless driver, it is not appropriate to call for directions or to report a disabled car, unless it's in a traffic lane, said Steve Wilkins, a CHP spokesman in Sacramento. Disabled vehicles, he said, should be reported from roadside call boxes, which automatically alert operators that the call is of a lower priority.
"What we're looking for is people using their judgment," Wilkins said.
Nor should drivers call about an accident if emergency vehicles already are there, other drivers are making calls from their cellulars or people are heading for the nearest call box.
"When the cars in an accident are out of the roadway, not posing a hazard, and the drivers are exchanging information," he said, "it's likely that the appropriate agency is already en route."
Recently, the CHP hired a consultant to examine the overburdened 911 system and suggest possible solutions. The consultant's report recommended, among other things, that the department explore ways of rerouting nonemergency calls, reorganize scheduling to assure that the maximum number of operators are on duty during peak calling periods, pursue new technologies capable of tracing and automatically routing cellular 911 calls and encourage the public to be more discriminating in the use of 911.
The department is setting up a task force to evaluate those recommendations.