Misdirected 911 Calls Add Stress to Emergencies

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Recently, Clairey Grubbs, who lives in Lincoln County, WY, had a harrowing experience, made worse by an unreliable 911 connection. The Jackson Hole News & Guide reported that Grubbs smelled smoke in her home and called 911, only to be told she had reached the wrong dispatch center. The dispatcher tried to connect her to the right center for her county, and she was disconnected. Grubbs frantically searched for the local fire department’s number on Google and reached the captain, who dispatched a crew who found a blocked stove pipe and secured the scene.

Luckily, neither Grubbs nor her home suffered any damage, but after sharing her story on a local Facebook page, she realized that her experience was not an isolated incident. According to Lincoln County Dispatch Supervisor Maryanne Christensen, what Grubbs experienced happens so often that there’s a name for it. “We call them cell skips,” she said. “It’s when a 911 call skips to the wrong tower.”

The issue is prevalent in western Wyoming, especially in mountainous counties, reported the News & Guide. Where a call is routed depends on the tower a caller “hits,” according to Teton County Dispatch Supervisor Riclyn Betsinger. Dispatchers in the region, including the neighboring state of Idaho, are used to transferring calls. 

Christensen, who has been a Lincoln County dispatcher for 15 years, continuously works with AT&T, Verizon, and other carriers to route calls correctly, but the solution isn’t simple, she said. Last summer, Christensen partnered with a provider to test towers. She drove around placing 911 calls in various locations to see which towers received her calls, reported the News & Guide.

Because placing 911 calls via cell phone doesn’t always give an accurate location, Christensen longs for the days of landlines. “Landlines are wonderful because we get exact addresses,” she said. 

However, since cell phones are a reality, Christensen recommends that residents prepare themselves for emergencies by memorizing their local dispatches’ phone number. She also tells people to turn on their smartphone’s compass to communicate one’s location more accurately. Plus, she and Grubbs are championing an educational campaign to boost awareness of misdirected 911 calls and how residents can provide dispatchers with accurate information. 

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