Last December, the Cherokee County 911 operators in this eastern Oklahoma town listened for 27 minutes and 34 seconds to the screams and retching of a caller, Misty Kirk, as an intruder beat her in front of her two daughters, ages 3 and 4. There was little else they could do.
Ms. Kirk, convinced that her assailant, whom she identified as her ex-husband, was angry enough to kill her, had managed to dial 911 on her cellphone and throw it under the sofa, praying that she would be found and rescued.
“I think she’s got a baby there with her,” one of the dispatchers can be heard saying on the 911 tape. Then, “How long has she been silent?”
911 is supposed to be a dial-tone service. You don't think about it until you need it, but when you need it, it has to be there. Increasingly, 911 is not available when people need it.
Officials in places large and small have declared a 911 crisis. When 30,000 emergency calls went unanswered in Chattanooga, Tenn., where Bob Corker, the Republican candidate for United States Senate in 2006, had served as mayor, his Democratic opponent, Harold E. Ford Jr., made it a campaign issue.
Officials in Riverside County, Calif., fed up with misrouted calls, have been advising residents to call the sheriff or local fire department directly.
In Bessemer, Ala., city employees could not get through to their own 911 system when a colleague had a seizure, at a time when the city and others like it are struggling to upgrade their systems at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
As it turns out Misty Kirk was lucky. Her son hung up the phone she threw under the couch and 911 was able to call back and get the address.
Others have not been as fortunate as Ms. Kirk. In nearby Okmulgee, Okla., last November, 4-year-old Graciella Mathews-Tiger died in a house fire after a 911 operator who lacked the technology to pinpoint the call misheard the address. The caller, a frantic construction worker with a cellphone, confirmed the incorrect address and hung up.
Most counties are focused on improving their technology to Enhanced 911 Phase II, which provides location accuracy within 50-300 meters. Phase I just provides the location of the nearest cell tower.
There are more than 6,000 911 call centers nationwide, and it is difficult to determine how much it will cost to bring them to Phase II. Last year, the National Emergency Number Association came up with a number, $340 million, but experts with the association caution that the estimate is loose because counties vary so much in size and existing equipment.
Graciella might not have died if Congress had provided the funding for the the Enhance 911 Act, which was passed in 2004. Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, is leading on effort to put some $43 million into the program.