It wasn’t always 911…
April 4, 2017
I was interviewed recently by a bright young woman who writes for this paper. As old firefighters are wont to do, I was reminiscing about the "old days" of our profession. I think I said something about the "fire phone" which prompted a quizzical expression from my victim, er, interviewer. I explained that it had not always been possible to report an emergency by calling an easily remembered, universally used three-digit phone number. In Squaw Valley, you dialed 583-4231 which rang a very loud bell in the fire station and the person on duty that day (and there was only one) answered the phone, took information about your emergency, activated the Plectron transmitting the dispatch over the radio for the volunteer firefighters, sounded the big siren outside the building and then donned their gear and drove the fire engine to the site of the emergency. If it sounds inefficient, it's because it was.
In the mid-80's, the 911 system went into operation in this area with emergency calls going to public safety answering points or "PSAP's". Fire departments locally were dispatched by the law enforcement dispatch centers — Placer County Sheriff's Office in Tahoe City or the Nevada County Sheriff's Office in Truckee. For the first time, professional dispatchers answered emergency calls and dispatched the appropriate resources — law enforcement, fire and/or emergency medical services. The ambulance service at that time was operated by Tahoe Forest Hospital – the paramedics wore white uniforms and the ambulances were converted four wheel drive, full-size vans. It sounds funky, but this system provided quite a high level of service and was an effective operation for quite a few years in the 1980's. In about 1988, the Hospital District decided they should get out of the ambulance business, so the Truckee and Kings Beach Fire Districts joined Tahoe City Fire Department in providing ambulance transport for sick and injured people in the area.
The next major advance in emergency response was the implementation of "enhanced 911" which automatically identifies the location of a 911 call placed on a landline (wired) telephone. This allowed dispatchers to send help even when a caller was unable to speak or identify their location.
When cellular phones were introduced in the early 90's, it was reasoned that most 911 calls made via cell phone would relate to vehicle accidents (because people would only use cell phones as mobile devices), so in California, the California Highway Patrol was tasked with becoming the cellular PSAP. Today, it's likely that most 911 calls are made from cellular phones, which must be quite a burden for the CHP's dispatchers, who take the call, determine the nature of the emergency and the most appropriate agency to handle it, then transfer the call to that dispatch center.
The 911 system has come a long way in a short period of time and has leveraged technology to provide a higher level of service to the public with every iteration. We've gained accuracy, efficiency and speed along the way, which is a very good thing.
Pete Banson is the Fire Chief of the Squaw Valley Fire Department.