Report 2004-106 Summary - August 2004

Wireless Enhanced 911:

The State Has Successfully Begun Implementation, but Better Monitoring of Expenditures and Wireless 911 Wait Times Is Needed

HIGHLIGHTS

Our review of the State's wireless enhanced 911 (wireless E911) program revealed that:

  • Under the leadership of the Department of General Services' 911 Office (General Services), California has addressed many of the concerns raised by two federal reports on nationwide implementation of wireless E911.
  • Although much work remains to be done, General Services plans to have wireless E911 implemented throughout most of the State by December 2005.
  • Most California Highway Patrol (CHP) centers do not have systems to monitor how long they take to answer 911 calls, and more than half the centers that tracked wait times did not meet the State's goal to answer 911 calls within 10 seconds.
  • Wait times were high, in part, because dispatchers at CHP centers handled significantly more 911 calls per dispatcher than did local answering points we contacted.
  • Unfilled dispatcher positions at CHP centers contributed not only to longer wait times but also to significant overtime costs for the CHP.
  • The CHP does not expect the number of wireless 911 calls diverted to local answering points to exceed 20 percent statewide.

RESULTS IN BRIEF

Since 1993, Californians have relied on a landline enhanced 911 (landline E911) system for fast, lifesaving responses from police, fire, and emergency medical services. The landline E911 system improved on the original basic 911 system by routing calls to dispatchers at the appropriate public safety answering points (answering points) and providing the callers' locations and telephone numbers on dispatchers' computer screens. However, the increasing use of mobile phones for 911 calls has created the need for a wireless emergency call system. Duplicating the features of the landline E911 system in a wireless emergency call system requires a coordinated technological response from various governmental and private entities.

According to a 2002 report from the Federal Communications Commission (Hatfield report), national progress toward a fully functioning wireless enhanced 911 (wireless E911) system has been delayed, with many states lacking the central coordination and the dedicated funding source to implement such a system. Thus, 911 callers using mobile phones may have trouble connecting to appropriate answering points and may not have their locations or mobile-phone numbers transmitted to dispatchers. With time being of the essence in an emergency response, such problems with wireless emergency calls can compromise the success of emergency response teams in protecting life and property.

Fortunately, under the leadership of the Department of General Services' 911 Office (General Services), the implementation of wireless E911 in California has been smoother than in many other states. Although partial implementation of wireless E911 has taken place in only three of the State's seven regions, California has addressed most of the Hatfield report's concerns as well as similar concerns voiced by the federal Government Accountability Office. Moreover, the National Governors Association has pointed to California as a model for other states because of its strategies to coordinate wireless E911 implementation. General Services has facilitated the completion of the initial strategic planning, and to date, the State has been meeting its ambitious schedule for implementing wireless E911 throughout the State by December 2005. However, the State is at a crucial stage of implementation. Should one region fall behind schedule, implementation in the other regions could be delayed.

The State's success so far has largely come from General Services' coordination of all the parties needed to implement wireless E911—including wireless service providers, incumbent local exchange carriers, the California Highway Patrol (CHP), and public safety answering points (answering points)—despite its possessing no authority over these entities. Thus, the cooperation of these parties is also crucial. General Services has also ensured that answering points for wireless E911 calls have the necessary equipment to receive wireless emergency calls and pinpoint callers' locations. Another factor in California's success is its dedicated funding source: a surcharge consumers pay on intrastate phone calls for 911 purposes, including the implementation of wireless E911. However, because the State has diverted a net amount of more than $150 million of these funds to its General Fund, future projects to further enhance the 911 system may have limited resources to tap. Additionally, General Services could better monitor its expenditures related to the wireless E911 project by separately tracking these costs.

The CHP is required by state law to answer all wireless 911 calls that are not routed to local answering points, such as city police departments. Therefore, through its 24 communications centers (centers), the CHP answers the majority of wireless 911 calls placed in the State. However, the CHP cannot determine if all its centers answer wireless calls promptly because it lacks a system to capture the information needed to track wait times in 15 of the 24 centers. For the nine centers that do collect wait-time information, six did not meet the state goal of answering 911 calls in 10 seconds or less. One reason wait times are high is that dispatchers at centers handled significantly more calls than did dispatchers at any of the four local answering points we reviewed. Disparities in staffing, however, do not fully explain the wide range in wait times. For example, the CHP's Orange County center had the highest number (1,733) of calls per dispatcher for the period January through March 2004, even though it had the lowest average wait time (4.7 seconds) for 911 calls during the same period. Nonetheless, the CHP should improve its system of tracking the total number of 911 calls received at each of its centers and develop a benchmark for the number of 911 calls per dispatcher that would allow it to answer 911 calls promptly.

Despite their efforts to recruit dispatchers, the centers have experienced difficulties in filling their authorized positions. In the first three quarters of fiscal year 2003-04, the average vacancy rate among dispatchers at the centers has been almost 9 percent. The CHP points to the State's recent hiring freeze and a disparity between the wages the CHP pays dispatchers and the wages paid to dispatchers by local answering points as the biggest obstacles in filling dispatcher positions. Unfilled positions have contributed not only to long wait times but also to significant overtime costs for the CHP. To staff its centers with sufficient numbers of dispatchers, the CHP spent nearly $4.2 million in overtime costs in fiscal year 2002-03 and more than $3.5 million through the first 10 months of fiscal year 2003-04. Finally, although one of the expected benefits of the selective routing feature of the wireless E911 system is that some of the wireless 911 calls will be diverted from the CHP to local answering points, thereby offering some relief to the CHP's workload, the CHP's 911 coordinator does not expect the number of calls diverted to exceed 20 percent statewide.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To ensure that adequate funding is available for future upgrades of the 911 system infrastructure, General Services should complete its conceptual plan for the project and, if it determines significant upgrades are needed, complete a financial plan for the project.

The Legislature should consider the effects on future 911 projects when diverting funds from the 911 program.

To adequately monitor the funding and progress of the implementation of wireless E911, General Services should separately track expenditures related to the wireless E911 project, comparing actual to anticipated expenditures.

To assist it in answering 911 calls promptly, the CHP should do the following:

  • As it implements wireless E911, include a system to monitor wait times at the 15 centers currently without such a system.
  • Implement a reliable system for monitoring the number of 911 calls its centers receive.
  • Identify practices that enable some centers, such as Orange County, to answer 911 calls promptly despite high ratios of calls per dispatcher, and determine if other centers could adopt the practices.
  • Develop a benchmark reflecting the number of 911 calls per dispatcher that would allow the CHP to answer 911 calls within the State's goal of 10 seconds.

To help attract and retain dispatchers at its centers, the CHP should request that the Department of Personnel Administration perform a statewide salary survey to determine the adequacy of the current salaries for CHP dispatchers.

AGENCY COMMENTS

The Department of General Services and the CHP agree with the findings of the report and note that they are already taking actions to address our recommendations.


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