Emergency calls made easy with cell phones

Clovis dispatchers say almost 90 percent of 911 calls are made from cell phones. (CNJ illustration by Darren Estrada)

By Mike Linn: CNJ News Editor

The increase in cell phone use over the past decade has done wonders for local emergency personnel, allowing them to arrive at wreck and crime scenes quicker.

But the portable telephones also have their drawbacks, local 911 dispatchers say.

Clovis dispatchers say 911 calls have tripled from a decade ago, and almost 90 percent of emergency calls are now dialed from cell phones.

Officials at Plateau Wireless in eastern New Mexico say the number of minutes the average cell phone user logs in a month has increased fourfold in the last five years.

“Cell phones in the hands of the public are great, as far as I’m concerned,” Clovis Police Chief Bill Carey said. “As a norm, we do get a lot of cell phone calls, which allow us to respond quicker to accident and crime scenes.”

Emergency calls from cell phones help police catch hit and run suspects and drunken drivers. Dispatchers say they get between 20 and 30 calls over a weekend from people trying to turn in a drunken driver, a practice that rarely occurred 10 years ago.

“And sometimes we catch them,” said Ann Muraco, a dispatcher for the Clovis Police Department.

When it comes to vehicle wrecks with serious injuries, a cell phone call can mean the difference between life and death, dispatchers said.

“The good from cell phones certainly outweigh the bad,” dispatcher Debby Blankenship said.

But that’s not to say local dispatchers don’t have their fair share of issues with 911 calls from cell phone users.

The main problem, dispatchers say, is cell phones — unlike calls from regular phones — won’t give dispatchers the location of the call. That means whoever places the call needs to be ready to tell dispatchers their location.
Many people don’t know that, though.

For example, dispatchers say sometimes women who are being abused will dial 911 on their cell phone hoping dispatchers can hear the mayhem and send police to the location.

“We can hear them being beat up, but there’s nothing we can do because we have no location,” dispatcher Donna Chavez said.

To remedy that, Carey said by the end of the summer the Clovis Police Department will have a new enhanced 911 system, which will triangulate the location of a cell phone call to within a few feet.

Another problem dispatchers face involves accidental calls.
Sometimes a cell phone will be in someone’s pocket and they accidentally dial 911, or a child will be playing with the phone and dial emergency personnel.

“Sometimes we get the cute ones,” Blankenship said, “and we say ‘please put mommy on the phone.’”