Calif. 911 call for unresponsive boy sent to Canada

Officials ask how 911 call was routed to Ontario; efforts to resuscitate the 8th grader were unsuccessful

By Steven Mayer
The Bakersfield Californian

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — No one wants to have to dial 911. But when we do, it seems reasonable to expect the call will be answered by a local 911 operator.

Unfortunately, that's not what happened when an eighth-grade boy collapsed during a P.E. class at Cecil Avenue Middle School in Delano last month.

The 911 call made by a school employee on the morning of Jan. 26 was answered by Ontario, Canada-based Northern911, a private company that provides emergency call routing to several fire departments and emergency service providers. In Canada.

The appeal for help was routed past local providers who should have received the emergency call.

Not only was the call misrouted, when it came from Northern911 to the Delano Police Department, the call came from a Northern911 employee to the department's main, non-emergency line, said Delano Police Department Cmdr. Raul Alvizo.

The caller had to navigate the "automated attendant," a recorded voice greeting, before making it to the emergency dispatchers.

Why the call for help was misrouted to the Canadian company is a question even local experts can't seem to answer definitively. But it's only one of many questions that remain following the death of the boy.

"I had no idea," said Georgiana Armstrong, who runs the Office of Emergency Services in Kern County. "I thought when you called 911, it went to a local 911 operator."

Armstrong and her team organize and plan for emergencies. But the 911 system, she said, is not strictly in her realm of responsibility.

Kern County Fire Department Capt. Tyler Townsend also couldn't say for sure what caused the misrouting, but he has some likely suspects.

When you call from a land line within the Bakersfield city limits, Townsend said, your call is answered by BPD dispatchers. If the emergency is fire or medical, it's immediately re-routed to the Kern County Fire Department's emergency communications center.

When you call from a land line in unincorporated Bakersfield, it goes to operators at the Kern County Sheriff's Office.

But here's the rub. When you call from a cellphone, where the call is routed may be influenced by your service provider and by where the nearest cell tower is located.

Alvizo said he tried an experiment to help himself understand the issue. He walked into the department's dispatch room and called 911 on his cellphone. The call should have been answered by one of the operators in that very room, he said. Instead, it was answered by someone at the Tulare County Sheriff's Office 43 miles north.

Cell phones that use Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, are also a growing problem. According to Northern911's website, VolP has become the preferred choice of many for its economic and other benefits.

But there's a serious downfall: When the user calls 911, the system may not know where the caller is located.

Alvizo said he and the department's manager of dispatch and records, Elisabeth Salin, could not determine exactly what time the 911 call was made from the middle school -- or how long it took for the caller to get through their automated call system.

Their dispatchers received the call that morning at 9:23:44. Some 36 seconds later, the call was transferred to the fire department's emergency communications center.

According to Townsend, the call was entered into the center's computer at 9:29:42, more than five minutes later. Some time would be needed to determine the nature of the emergency, Townsend said, "but that couldn't have been more than a minute."

Fire department medical aid arrived at the school at 9:34:56.

In emergencies like this, lives may hang in the balance. Perhaps some of the remaining questions will be answered by the police investigation. For example:

How much time elapsed between the boy's collapse and the 911 call?

Had a portable automated external defibrillator been available at the school, might the student's life have been saved?

How much time was lost between the routing of the call to Canada and the time it reached dispatchers in Delano?

How many minutes elapsed between the time the call reached the emergency communications center and the time it was dispatched?

And finally, what is being done to make sure this doesn't happen again?

All good questions no one has had satisfactory answers for thus far.

©2015 The Bakersfield Californian (Bakersfield, Calif.)

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