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We Need RED: Fixing California’s Broken 911 Emergency Response System


As Kelsey Brugger reports for the Santa Barbara Independent, a wrongful-death suit may prompt California to fix its 911 emergency-response system, which does not work as it should with 911 calls made on mobile phones. For those who have medical emergencies requiring prompt attention, time is obviously of the essence, and a misrouted dispatch could mean death.

For a 24-year-old with a medical emergency, as Brugger reports, because first responders were misrouted to a nonexistent address – instead of being directed to the correct address which was only a mile or less from a fire station – death is quite possibly the consequence of that delay. But the wrongful-death suit the parents filed on the 24-year-old’s behalf may play a role in fixing the problem with mobile phones.

The Problem: A Lack of Compatibility

In contrast to landline phones, as Brugger describes it, mobile phones do not have street addresses embedded in transmission signals, which generally facilitates direct and straightforward routing. And regional locations handle mobile 911 calls. Calls made on landlines, however, go directly to local dispatch centers. The potential for error is high, given that people on mobile phones can only be located based on their proximity to a cell phone tower, and often it’s only a rough estimate.

The Fix: Wireless Emergency Routing

According to Brugger, California once had a Routing on Empirical Data program underway, but it was jettisoned for financial reasons. “The RED project would map all wireless calls in a given cell-tower sector to determine which dispatch jurisdiction they came from and then send them to the appropriate dispatch center.”

Jettisoning the program may come back to haunt the powers-that-be, given the fact that the 911 system isn’t operating the way it should. The International Journal of Emergency Services reports that “shaving time saves lives,” arguing that RED improves 911-call efficiency and outcomes.

We need RED back.