The trouble with 911


FEB 18 — The 3:15 a.m. argument in the street outside first woke her dogs, then woke Rebecca Smith.”We often get loud, yelling people walking past, and having them realize that someone hears them usually stops the yelling.” said Smith. Her house is near the intersection of Walnut and Eastern Avenue on the Takoma Park, MD/DC border. Eastern is a major thoroughfare and Walnut is a small residential street.

Outside, a couple argued loudly, the man in the car, the woman walking away. “He was trying to get her back in the car, she was saying ‘no.'” Smith said. “I opened my door and asked her if I could help. He said ‘I’m gonna shoot!’ And he did. She ran back to the car and they sped away up Eastern toward Carroll.”

Smith dialed the nationally standardized emergency number on her cell phone.

“I dialed 911, and Prince Georges [County Police] answered.” said Smith.  “I told them I was in Takoma Park and they transferred me to Montgomery County 911.  When I told them my address was in Takoma Park … they tried to transfer me to Takoma Park twice, but failed due to ‘technical difficulties.’ I finally told the dispatcher that she was wasting important time because this was an emergency and a man with a gun had already driven away with a woman in his car.  She then took my report  – not sure what she did with it.  Takoma Park police showed up in about three  minutes.”

Takoma Park Police Chief Alan Goldberg said that even with the glitches Smith encountered, the police response time was only delayed by about 30 seconds. He said the technical difficulties the dispatcher had transferring the call were unusual. However, he did caution cell phone users that their calls, depending on which cell tower relays them, can appear to be coming from Prince George’s County. When that happens, calls are routed to that county’s 911.

The chief said “I hate to tell people not to call 911, but if you have a cell phone, you don’t know what (cell tower) you’re going to get.”

The police chief presented the police department annual report to the city council Wednesday, Feb. 17, the same day of the incident. Ward 3 city council member Rizzy Qureshi asked the chief for information about it and to address the 911 issue.

The chief recommended that cell phone users put the TTPD direct phone number on automatic speed dial. That number is 301-270-1100. It is answered by the city police dispatcher.

911, when routed correctly, is answered by the Montgomery County police department dispatcher, who quickly transfers the call to the Takoma Park police dispatcher.


TPPD Chief Alan Goldberg presents the police annual report to the city council, Feb. 17, 2016. Photo by Bill Brown.

Queried about this after the meeting, the chief said he can’t cite the 301-270-1100 number  as an official emergency number because “It does not provide full caller information or location.” He said “Technically, it is not an emergency number.”

This is in contrast to the city policy before Takoma Park was unified. Until 1997 the city was divided by the Prince George’s and Montgomery County border. 911 was in use as the standard emergency number then, but dialing it in Takoma Park often led to confusion and delay. The city actively promoted using 301-270-1100 to reach the city police dispatcher.

Sometime since then the police shifted to recommending citizens call 911. The current system, when called on a land-line, can identify the caller’s location. Land-line numbers are linked to a physical address. Cell phones are not. Their essential nature is to be mobile.

This is a nationwide problem, not limited to Takoma Park.

A Federal Communications Commission website says that cell phones “create unique challenges for emergency response personnel and wireless service providers.”

“Since wireless phones are mobile,” says the FCC, “they are not associated with one fixed location or address. While the location of the cell site closest to the 911 caller may provide a general indication of the caller’s location, that information is not always specific enough for rescue personnel to deliver assistance to the caller quickly.”

The FCC estimates 70 percent of 911 calls are currently placed from wireless phones, and the percentage is growing.

A February 2015 USA Today article describes some tragic incidents due to 911 cell phone calls going to the wrong jurisdiction and the difficulty in pinpointing their location.

Chief Goldberg says the county police will update their 911 system this year. He estimated it will be in place within six months. Using computer-assisted dispatch (CAD) software it will more accurately locate cell phones. 911 will be able to receive text messages also, which the current system can’t.

The next generation 911 system, the chief told the city council, will be able to locate a cell phone’s GPS coordinates. He gave no time estimate when that system might become available.

The FCC recommends that cell phone users calling 911 should give their location and phone numbers to the emergency operator right away. They should know that 911 systems currently cannot receive texts, photos and videos.

Fire and ambulance/rescue calls should be made to 911, said the chief. Unlike the police those emergency responders routinely cross borders and pool resources in response to a call.


What number to call:

• 911 is the official city police emergency number. It works well for land-lines.
• Cell phone users are urged use 301-270-1100, and to put it on their speed-dials.
• Use 911 for fire and rescue on both land lines and cell phones.

2 Comments on "The trouble with 911"

  1. Wait, at the bottom of the article it says to call 301-270-1100, while the article quotes “The chief recommended that cell phone users put the TTPD direct phone number on automatic speed dial. That number is 301-270-[redacted by embarrassed editor].
    There is also a reference to 301-280-1100, which must be an editing error.

    Clarify please!

    • Thanks for spotting that! It was so hard not to automatically type my home phone in there. One slipped past me. And the 280 was a typo. The Takoma Park Police non-emergency-but-goes-to-the-dispatcher number is 301-270-1100.

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