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'Boundary' Calls Challenge 911 System

Inaccurate location data, cell phones and internet providers challenge emergency response.

Monday, June 13, the emergency response 911 system failed 50 year-old David Stanley Smith, a 24-year employee of Waldron, Inc., a firm located on the western border of Alexandria City and Fairfax County. Following a 14-minute delay between the initial call for help and paramedics' arrival, Smith was pronounced dead at Inova Alexandria Hospital.

When Smith collapsed, a co-worker placed a 911 call using a land-based telephone. The call went to the Alexandria emergency call center at police headquarters on Mill Road. They routed it immediately to the Fire Department dispatch center.

That was when the confusion began. It was determined that the location of Waldron, 5910 Farrington Ave., just off Van Dorn Street, was in the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department jurisdiction.

Alexandria notified Fairfax County of that fact and alerted them to immediately dispatch an ambulance. That was at 8:03 a.m. At 8:12 a.m. Fairfax County called Alexandria and informed them the address was in Alexandria's jurisdiction.

In the meantime the Waldron employee who initially made the distress call had called back at 8:09 a.m. asking the whereabouts of the ambulance. "When we realized Fairfax County had not dispatched an ambulance we immediately sent our apparatus to the scene," said Battalion Chief John North, Alexandria Fire Department.

"They arrived at 8:14 a.m. and took over medical treatment of the patient. Staff at Waldron had been administering CPR," North said.

"This was caused by Verizon entering the wrong jurisdiction in the data base for that address. We immediately notified Verizon and they corrected their data base that same day," North said. Farrington Avenue is the dividing line with Waldron on the Fairfax side of the line.

"We've also asked Verizon to check their data for all the fringe areas to make sure they have them listed correctly. We sent that request directly to Verizon's upper management," he said.

"We worked on address identifications extensively when we set this system up. And we have addresses and names of residents tied directly to phone numbers in our dispatch center," said Jane Malik, public information officer, Alexandria Fire Department.

Fairfax County Police Department Emergency call center is also dependent on Verizon's data base, according to Lt. Richard Perez. "The system's data tells us where the incident is and where the closest units for dispatch are located. The dispatcher then acts accordingly," Perez said.

"We believe that something broke down when the call first came in to us. As a result we are looking at the human factor as well as the technological and system factors," Perez said.

"Any breakdown in those factors will be corrected. We also immediately contacted Verizon and informed them of the mistake and they verified to us the necessary changes have been made," he said.

WITH INCREASED USE of cell phones and internet providers being substituted for traditional land-based telephone service, callers could be trading financial savings for efficient emergency service, according to North.

"By people using their internet provider for phone service that 911 call could end up going anywhere. We've had them referred to us from as far west as Texas," he said.

"Operators taking those calls are not trained emergency technicians. It's the internet provider putting them on hold not 911," North said. "They have to locate where the jurisdiction is in many cases."

In the case of making an emergency call on a cell phone the problem is that the signal will go to the nearest tower which may or may not be in the jurisdiction of the emergency. During a fire at a home in Mount Vernon District last summer a 911 call from a cell phone ended up with a Prince Georges County emergency operator who had no idea where the address was located because it was not in that jurisdiction.

"If a tower is out of service due to repairs or whatever, then the signal will seek out the next nearest tower which could be anywhere.

"It's becoming a larger and larger problem. People are saving money on their phone bills but are not aware of the problems. Congress has been holding hearings on this problem," North said.

"We have an enhanced 911 service. The calls go into the Alexandria Police Department and they determine if it's a police or fire emergency or both. If it's fire or medical it is instantly transferred to our dispatch center. It's a seamless transfer. There are no delays. The caller isn't even aware of the transfer," he said.

RECENTLY, A CALL from a Spanish-speaking Alexandria resident to the Fire Department dispatch center requested emergency assistance. She was home alone and ready to give birth. She spoke or understood very little English.

This brought into play another element of the professional 911 system — the "language line" where language specialists work 24 hours/seven days a week. They can be patched in instantaneously to serve as a language conduit between the emergency technician or paramedic and the victim or patient.

In this case Paramedic Craig Youngdale was on duty in the Alexandria dispatch center telling the language specialist what he needed the expectant mother to do and getting questions answered about her condition and medical history. That information was also being relayed by emergency communications technician, Wendy Hamilton, sitting across from him, to paramedics already in route to the address.

"We also rely on the language bank line to solve language problems," Perez said. "And, we augment that with our language skills support unit in the department."

Many of Fairfax County's patrol officers are proficient in other languages. "In such cases we look at who's in the field at the time and who's available in what language," he said.

"WE HAVE MUTUAL AID agreements with both Fairfax and Arlington counties as well as with Reagan National Airport. Whoever is closest and available goes. That's the bottom line. But, it's always under the control of the primary jurisdiction of the emergency," he said.

In the case of David Stanley Smith, "We have launched an internal investigation into that specific incident to determine what actually occurred. Our Internal Affairs detective will be looking at all the factors," Perez said.

"In a boundary situation like that it shouldn't matter who responds. We want to get the closest units their as soon as possible. We understand that whether it's a fire, medical or criminal emergency the object is to get the help there immediately," he said.

"The bottom line on a 911 emergency is to facilitate the aid to the person with the emergency. We want to assure the public we are constantly striving to achieve that as these technologies change. We also want to extend our deepest sympathies to the Smith family," Perez said.