Emergency calling: there’s more to it, but it’s still 9-1-1

Major Susan Schofield shown in this file photo manages the communications center. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

By the time Chad Edward realized his chimney was on fire, flames were beginning to break through the interior walls. He did what any of us would do.

He called 9-1-1.

According to fire officials, Mr. Edward said when he called the emergency number from his mobile phone, a state police dispatcher from off-Island answered. He thought somehow he dialed the wrong number, so he jumped in his car and sped from his home on Greenleaf Avenue toward the Oak Bluffs police station to get help.

He was in luck.

He found officer Jim Morse, on routine patrol in the downtown business district.

Officer Morse radioed the communication center whose dispatchers notified the fire department. Then the officer followed Mr. Edward back to his home.

“I entered and observed the house full of smoke,” Officer Morse wrote in his report. “There was a fire burning in the fireplace and flames were starting to come through the wall above the fireplace.”

Officer Morse used a fire extinguisher from his cruiser to put out the flames in the fireplace and the flames coming through the walls.

The fire department arrived and finished the job, extinguishing flames inside the walls, and saving the home.

Who to call

With more and more people using mobile phones and internet technology to communicate, emergency response seems more and more complicated. Communication center officials say that, in fact, if callers stay on the line and give the dispatcher the necessary information, word will go out to emergency personnel very quickly, even if the call goes to an off-Island facility or the State Police.

The Dukes County Communications Center dispatches more than 60 agencies and departments on Martha’s Vineyard from its facility near the Martha’s Vineyard Airport.

Though dialing 508-693-1212 will reach the Island dispatchers directly from any phone, that is not what Major Susan Schofield recommends. Ms. Schofield manages the communications center.

“We still want people to call 9-1-1,” Ms. Schofield said. “Even if it goes to state police, they can see on a map where the person is calling from.”

No matter who answers, Ms. Schofield said, stay on the line, and if the call is dropped, call 9-1-1 again.

Tech track

In most cases, a 9-1-1 call from either a conventional phone or a wireless phone is routed in similar ways.

From a conventional phone, the emergency call goes to a computer in a local switching facility. By checking the number against a database of known addresses, the technology determines where the call originates. If it is anywhere on Martha’s Vineyard, the call is immediately routed to the Dukes County communications center, where one of the local dispatchers answers.

Ms. Schofield said any mobile phone purchased after 2008 will have 9-1-1 wireless technology, that will route an emergency call directly to the communications center, just like a call from a home phone. Most cell phones bought before 2004 will not.

From the newer wireless phones, the 9-1-1 call goes first to a cell tower, then to a local switching facility, where it is matched against a database and then routed directly to the communications center. It takes seconds, sometimes less, for all the technology to route the call to the right place.

In both cases, dispatchers can see where the call is coming from on a graphical map display. In a conventional call from a home phone, dispatchers see the full address of the location and pass it on to police. With most wireless calls, dispatchers can see the address where the call originates.

This information can be critical for first responders. In an emergency, a caller may be confused about their location, or may not be able to speak clearly. With the location of the call available, dispatchers can get a police cruiser or fire truck rolling quickly.

That is the reason emergency responders want you to call 9-1-1, instead of dialing the communications center directly.

Call complications

Response to 9-1-1 calls gets trickier when the call comes from an older model mobile phone or from a disposable or pre-paid mobile phone or non-initialized phones (phones that have no calling plan). In that case, the call will likely go first to the State Police dispatch center in Framingham. Dispatchers there can only see the location of the cell tower receiving the call on a graphical map. Dispatchers say that callers who are unable to speak can be confusing, and also for callers using VoIP phones that can be taken anywhere.

In that case, dispatchers say, They may be standing on Main Street in Edgartown but the address is showing Oak lane in West Tisbury. If the caller can speak and provide a location, the response times would be the same as any type of true emergency.

That may show a very broad area of possible locations, or it may narrow the location to a relatively small area, depending on the location of the cell tower and other factors.

Even then, dispatchers have technology to give them a good guess about where the emergency call should be routed, so local authorities can send help.

“It gives them a probability or percentage of accuracy,” Ms. Schofield said. “They are really good at figuring out just where it is. It usually happens within a minute.”

Voice of concern

Responding to an emergency call from a phone that uses Internet technology such as Skype, Vonage, or phone service provided by a cable television company gets even more difficult.

In voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology, the call does not travel through telephone wires like a conventional phone, or through sound waves and then telephone wires like a wireless phone.

Skype is a free software service that routes calls over the Internet. According to the company, it should not be used as a replacement for phone service, and is not capable of connecting to an emergency dispatcher through the 9-1-1 system.

Vonage is a commercial service that uses similar Internet technology. That company operates a national emergency call center. If you dial 9-1-1 the national call center dispatcher must determine where you are, and route the call to the nearest local emergency dispatch center.

If your Internet is not working, for example, in the case of a fire that damages your computer equipment, your phone will not work at all.

On the Island, Comcast provides VoIP phone service called Comcast Digital Voice. A 9-1-1 service is installed with the phone service. Customers are asked to fill out a form with a physical address. It is that address that emergency dispatchers see when you call 9-1-1.

VoIP phones can be moved from location to location with continuous service so it is important to update your address with the cable company if you move the phone.

VoIP calls can be very confusing for emergency dispatchers and first responders.

Ms. Schofield says one recent call came into the communications center, showing an Island address. “They were in Europe,” she said, “and dialed by accident.”