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Stevens Co. Sheriff: Stay on the line for 911 calls

Correction: This story originally stated that the three counties involved with the virtual PSAP project were Stevens, Pope and Douglas counties. That was incorrect. The three counties involved with the project are Stevens, Pope and Grant counties.

MORRIS – Although seconds can feel like an eternity in an emergency situation, residents calling 911 – especially those using cell phones – need to remain patient and stay on the phone until a dispatcher answers.

Over the last several months, the Stevens County Sheriff's Office has experienced a number of situations where 911 callers hang up the phone before a dispatcher has a chance to answer, Stevens County Sheriff Jason Dingman said.

Callers using cell phones, especially, will hear the phone ringing several times before their call even registers at the dispatch center because it takes time to route the call and collect information about who is calling and where they are calling from, said Stevens County IT Director Scott Busche.

“If somebody picks up their phone and hits 9-1-1 and then they pass out because their car went off the road, our mapping system will help determine where that's at,” said Busche.

If a caller hangs up before reaching a dispatcher, their call is still logged by the system with name and location data that was collected before the call registered in the dispatch center. But if callers hang up too soon, that information isn't collected and dispatchers can't try to call back to help, said Busche.

“I know seconds matter, but be patient,” advised Dingman. “People are hanging up before dispatch even hears the phone call in the first place.”

This impatience when calling 911 has long been a problem, but has recently been exacerbated by the installation of a new virtual public-safety answering point (PSAP) in Stevens County.

The virtual PSAP, a collaboration between Pope, Stevens and Grant counties, allows dispatchers in any of the three counties to answer 911 calls. In addition to speeding up how fast emergency calls are answered, the new system will provide a back-up in case the dispatch center in one county is offline.

When a resident calls 911 in Stevens County, the system can reroute the call to a dispatcher in Pope or Douglas counties if the call isn't answered after a specified amount of time. Dispatchers in each county can also see when all 911 calls arrive and manually override the call timers if one dispatcher is occupied.

The problem that has come up since the new system was installed earlier this year is that if an impatient caller hangs up while the call is in the process of being “bounced” from one dispatch center to another, the call registers as an abandoned call. This can delay if and when emergency responders can be dispatched to help, Dingman said.

While the system still needs to be tweaked to make sure the call timers don't reroute calls too quickly, these tweaks cannot speed up the time it takes for calls to register in the dispatch center in the first place, said Bushe.

All this means residents need to remain patient and stay on the line until their call is answered.

“Let it ring. Don't hang up. Somebody will answer it,” said Dingman.