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Grasshopper Soup: 911 dispatch center a victim of budget cuts

Bob Sweigert
Special to the Sun

TAHOE CITY, Calif. and#8212; For all practical purposes, you may be on your own if you have a 911 emergency while hiking, climbing, biking or camping in the backcountry of Placer County. Help will arrive, but it may be too late. Your first responders will be able to assist you, but they may not be able to extract you. If your injuries are critical, it could cost you your life.

In 2010, Placer County eliminated the Tahoe area 911 office and re-routed all local 911 calls to Auburn because of financial constraints and budget concerns.

Whenever you call 911 in Placer County, you reach an operator in Auburn, 60 miles or more away, depending on where you are. The operator may not be familiar with your specific location, so the potential exists for a confusing conversation regarding not only your location, but the specific needs, and scope, of your emergency situation.

The possibility for confusion is real. According to sources, in an incident last winter involving a hip injury not far from the water tower along the dirt road above the Tahoe City Nordic Center, the 911 operator in Auburn dispatched a crew that was able to provide essential care, but did not have the capability to remove the victim, which was precisely what was needed. Another crew with the necessary equipment had to be called, which took more time.

If your emergency occurs at a local residence with a fixed address, or, if you are near a main road, call 911 and the operator you speak to in Auburn can easily assist you. But, if you are in the backcountry of Placer County and you need to report an emergency, chances are the 911 operator will, understandably, be unfamiliar with your situation.

It is Placer Countyand#8217;s official policy that the public must call 911 first. That official policy came to my attention over a year ago. It was a relatively minor incident, depending on how you look at it. The story involved a local resident who saw flames in a field near some private commercial properties on the west side of Tahoe City. The resident thought that, since the fire department was so close, he could drive there and report the fire in person in the amount of time it took to make a phone call, so he did. He was summarily advised by the fire chief to use the proper procedure in the future and call 911.

According to the swift-acting, concerned citizen, knocking on the door of the local fire department to report a fire may be common sense, but it is not proper procedure. Proper procedure is to call 911 so they can call the fire department.

However, in an emergency, when time is of the essence, common sense would suggest that quick word of mouth is better than two phone calls. Common sense and 911 policy should work hand in hand, especially if you have a life-threatening emergency and the 911 dispatch operator is unfamiliar with your back country location.

This weekend marks the traditional start of summer recreation in Tahoe. If you plan to enter the backcountry, or any area not defined by street addresses, experienced search and rescue personnel familiar with this potentially fatal glitch in the 911 system advise you to take the phone numbers of Care Flight, CALSTAR or other local emergency rescue operations with you. Their numbers are readily available to the public.

911 dispatch can be complex. Many skilled agencies are involved, including those mentioned above. Their availability can vary depending on unpredictable emergency demands. That is why it is important to call 911 first. 911 may not be familiar with your location, but they can access current information regarding available resources.

Even in the best of circumstances human error is always a possibility. As we say in the mountains, and#8220;Be prepared for the worst, and hope for the best.and#8221;

Having a list of phone numbers handy in the back country, besides 911, could mean the difference between life and death.

Bob Sweigert is a Sierra Sun columnist, published poet, former college instructor and ski instructor. He has a B.A. and an M.A.T. from Gonzaga University. He has lived at Lake Tahoe for 30 years.


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