Atlanta TV WXIA 11Alive deserves great credit for their tireless investigation of why thirty-one year old Shanell Anderson was unable to get an Alpharetta 9-1-1 dispatcher to locate her car as it sank into a retaining pond at Batesville near Fairway Road. Ms. Anderson, a supervisor who was delivering newspapers for a sick employee at four in the morning, even gave the zip code of her location -- but since the present analog 9-1-1 emergency call system's locator function stops at the county line, a cell tower in Fulton County picked up the call, while she was drowning just over the line in Cherokee County. When help finally arrived, it was too late for Ms. Anderson, who could not be revived successfully.
As painful as it is to state the truth, this was a
totally-avoidable tragedy. And it is only one of many, and not in Georgia alone. It would be
very useful if each and every car in the nation were required to carry a
special emergency hammer, readily available at auto parts stores, to break out
a window when driver or passengers are trapped.
But it would be even more useful to have a modern, functioning 9-1-1
emergency call system in each State -- something mandated by Federal law for
decades, but not the case throughout the nation.
One major source of the outmoded 9-1-1 system's problems is that it is based on outmoded technology. The system uses GIS, the Geographic Information System, rather than GPS, the Global Positioning System. GIS tends to stop at the County line, and here in Georgia -- unlike many states -- there are a host of counties, and hence a host of county lines. Ironically, most "smart phones" have the capability of reporting their exact map coordinates -- but they do not report that vital data to the 9-1-1 system because it is unable to receive the information. Even more ironically, better location data is available from "land lines" than from cell phones -- but some 70% of 9-1-1 emergency calls today are made from cell phones. It just keeps getting worse.
You might ask why nothing is done about these well-known problems. When I developed the SCOPE (Safer Communities through Organized Preventive Effort) Plan for New Hampshire in the early 2000s, while serving as hazard mitigation consultant to their Office of Emergency Management, one of the problems which was identified early was the limitations of their 9-1-1 emergency call system. Shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, when new federal funds became available for dealing with disasters, I advocated channeling some of those funds into modernizing and enhancing our emergency response capabilities. While those recommendations were favorably received by Emergency Management, the funds seemed to go elsewhere. Even so, New Hampshire -- and New England in general -- have far more functional 9-1-1 systems that does Georgia, in part because they have far fewer counties, so calls are much more likely to turn up an exact emergency location thanks to much broader geographic coverage.
Shamefully, the State of Georgia has diverted funds away from making our residents safer and most secure via improving the present defective 9-1-1 system. Georgia took some $13.7 million in prepaid wireless fees in 2011, but not one cent was spent on 9-1-1 system enhancement -- all of that money went into Georgia's General Fund, where funds are often diverted to appear to hold down the State budget. Our governor's office even endorses these practices. There is a mandated State 9-1-1 Advisory Committee on the books, ever since 1977, but it has not met for years. And when Federal funds to improve the 9-1-1 system have been distributed, Georgia has never even bothered to apply for a grant (unlike most of the other Southern States.)
Perhaps the Roman Emperor Nero, having fiddled while Rome burned, would have understood this State's lethargy about modernizing and enhancing its obsolete 9-1-1 system. Georgians, however, should find that lethargy to be totally unacceptable, and indeed shocking. It seems that those in authority in this State -- and other States, as well -- will continue to be asleep at their 9-1-1 switch, while even more needless and heedless tragic deaths and severe injuries will occur.