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DIGGING DEEPER: Cell phones create delay in 911 calls within Winnebago County

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ROCKFORD (WREX) — In an emergency every second is precious as you wait for first responders to answer the call.

Anna Roberson called 911 a few weeks ago when her diabetic father-in-law had a blood sugar crash. Anna called from south Rockford but her call didn't go to the correct 911 center. Instead of talking to Winnebago County Center dispatchers her call was directed to Rockford's dispatch center. From there, a telecommunicator told her she would be transferred to a city dispatcher.

"I did not understand," said Anna. "They didn't say why or for what. They just said oh we can't help you we need to transfer you to another dispatcher."

Anna isn't the only one who's had this type of confusion in an emergency. Dozens of 911 calls are transferred between the city of Rockford and Winnebago County every day.

"Of those calls the average delay in the time we receive the call to when the county center picks it up is 56 seconds," said 911 Division Administrator Leigh Sterrenberg. "That's a very scary thought that it can take up to a minute for that call."

Whether it's a person who's stopped breathing, a car crash, or a massive heart attack - no matter the severity of the emergency, precious seconds could tick away if you're in Winnebago County.

"Every second counts," said Rockford Fire Chief Derek Bergsten. "We want to drive down that time as much as we can. Specifically, if that person is not breathing or their heart has stopped...time equals tissue."

But why does this happen? It comes down to how you place your 911 call: a landline, or a cellphone.

"If you call from a landline we know exactly where you are," said Sterrenberg. "It has your exact telephone, address, we know where you are even if you can't speak to us."

Sterrenberg said if the call comes from a cellphone, it goes to a cell tower, then to a dispatch center. But that technology isn't always correct. Sometimes it sends calls to a 911 center that isn't in the same boundary as the caller.

For example, Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara spotted a car crash from city hall and called 911. City hall is across the street from the city dispatch center. Instead of McNamara's call going across the street, it traveled more than four miles away to the county dispatch center where it had to be transferred to the city.

According to data from the Rockford Fire Department, it transfers roughly eight calls a day (just under 3,000 a year) to the county. Meanwhile the county is more than double that transferring roughly 19 call to the city (just under 7,000 per year).

Chief Bergsten said even if the call goes to the incorrect center, there's a chance the first dispatcher you speak to can send emergency units immediately, before your call is transferred. But he said it's not always the case. Sometimes telecommunicators need more information or are tied up on other calls.

"We don't put anyone on hold on a 911 call we initialize and do a direct hand off to the other 911 center to make sure they aren't lost and that their emergency is being handled as quickly as possible," said Bergsten.

But is there a solution to this problem?

"The resolution to that would be doing all the call taking in one place," said Sterrenberg. "If all the call taking was done in one place, or one PSAP, that would eliminate the need for transfers."

Chief Bergsten said this type of consolidation comes with a price tag and has been met with opposition in years past.

"There's been a lot of discussion about having the calls come to one center," said Bergsten. "That's been going on for the last three or four years. We haven't gotten to that point yet, but we focus on the training for the appropriate resources and getting that call handled as quickly as possible and routed to the right center."

Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana said the splitting of the two dispatch centers happened back in 2006 under different leaders. He believes both sides stopped seeing eye to eye.

"I don't like the model that we're in now," said Caruana.

It's a decision he and Bergsten are hopeful can change in the coming years.

"Past relationships back in the day, those fears carry on," said Caruana. "We want to clear it up. Is it going to take time? Yes. Do I think we can change culture? Yes. But we have to keep working on it."

Bergsten said new technology is coming to both 911 centers this spring that leaders believes could be beneficial in cutting transfer times and 911 dispatching as a whole. If you need to call 911, try to speak calmly and clearly to dispatchers to let them know exactly where you are and what the emergency is.

The blue line shows the distance between the city dispatch center in downtown Rockford to the county center on N. Main Street.

Mary Sugden

Mary Sugden is the Investigative Reporter at WREX. She joined the team in December 2014 as the evening producer. In 2015 she made the move to evening reporter before joining the 13 Investigates team in May of 2018.

She grew up in Woodstock, Illinois and graduated from Woodstock High School in 2009. Mary graduated with a degree in Journalism and Marketing from Loyola University Chicago in 2013.

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