When a witness called 911 around the time of the fatal crash on the I-74 bridge pedestrian path, the dispatcher couldn’t hear her.
In the May 22 call, the dispatching center in Milan had transferred the caller to the dispatching center in Davenport.
“Ma’m, I can’t hear you at all,” the Scott Emergency Communications Center, SECC, dispatcher told the caller.
The problem is not unusual.
The emergency call made on May 22 ultimately was determined to be unrelated to the incident on the bridge. It was supplied to the Quad-City Times/Dispatch-Argus as part of an Open Records Law request for information related to the crash.
“I apologize for the sound quality,” Tracey Sanders, deputy director of SECC, said when supplying the recording.
“The audio issue is concerning, I agree,” she wrote in an email when asked how frequently the issue occurs. “We are working with our partners in Illinois to get this resolved as soon as possible.
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“I do not want to misspeak on behalf of Illinois, so I won’t try to explain what the cause of this is. You might get some answers from the ETSB (Emergency Telephone System Board) in Rock Island County.”
The longtime head of that board is Milan Village Administrator Steve Seiver, who explained that audio issues and dropped calls are not uncommon enough for frustrated dispatchers, “who hate to hang up on callers.”
The problems also aren’t new. While cellphone technology has hindered seamless emergency calling, the same technology now is ready to help.
Cell towers make decisions, not dispatch centers
The glitches at local 911 dispatching centers are outside of local control. While they can occur anywhere, border states have long struggled with call-transfer problems.
There’s more to transferring calls back-and-forth between Scott and Rock Island counties than pushing a button. And whatever information is collected by the first dispatcher to take the call doesn’t automatically follow the transfer, which can lead to the loss of precious time in duplication.
“The transfer is either done through a dialed 10-digit transfer, or it’s a stored 10-digit number,” Seiver said. “Across state lines, there is no ability to send as a 911 call; it has to be a 10-digit transfer.
“That has a lot of down sides to it.”
As the preponderance of 911 calls are made on cellphones, not land lines, the entire network is at the mercy of cellphone towers. The way in which antennas receive calls has a big impact on the way they are routed.
And, since many calls are made from moving vehicles, cell towers can become “confused” when determining where the calls should go.
Consider this: From December 2021 to May 2022, Seiver and others at the ETSB looked at the hard numbers, “because we wanted to know how bad it is,” he said.
In that time, 2,997 calls that were handled by 911 dispatchers in Rock Island County had to be redirected to Scott County. But Scott County received only 17 calls for transfer during the same period.
The reason for the considerable disparity is simple: The location of cell towers on bluffs of the Mississippi River and the direction in which the antennas are aimed.
Rather than moving cell towers, another fix is in the works.
Rock Island County soon to see improvements
Seiver used this scenario when explaining where cellular technology has failed emergency services:
“You can be in Target and have your phone alert you to a sale on Bounty paper towels in aisle 3,” he said. “They know more about you than 911.
“Last month, AT&T announced it will be the first carrier to route calls by allowing smartphones’ GPS to determine a caller’s location, rather than a cell tower making a guess.”
Called NextGen 911, the move in public safety is toward making use of data that can be transmitted by phone, including pictures, videos and text messages. The system is in the late stages of a rollout, and Seiver said that hopes are high that NextGen 911 will resolve the Quad-Cities’ problems with emergency-call transfers.
“The good news is that we are part of the statewide plan to address these border-state issues,” he said. “Smartphone operating systems are equipped with 911 technology, and AT&T is the first to allow your phone to send your location directly to 911.”
What still needs to happen
All emergency 911 systems were designed for analog land lines.
A system called Voice Over IP (internet protocol) allowed for the use of broadband internet, rather than a phone line. The new framework for delivery opens the door for public safety to connect directly with cellphone data.
Fully deployed, callers could send on-scene photos from an accident or a fire, for instance, directly to first responders.
As soon as officials in Illinois give the green light to the GIS (geographic information system) mapping that is being proposed for a nationwide rollout, Seiver said, the four dispatching centers in the Illinois Quad-Cities will be ready to board.
“This has never been a failure of Scott County, Iowa, or Rock Island County, Illinois,” Seiver said.”It’s been a failure of the system itself. Somebody needs help, and the system hasn’t always allowed us to get them help.”
Despite the glitches, the dispatching centers have found ways to ensure technology’s imperfections do not become catastrophic for callers in need.
Sanders described the systems of backup that have long been in place in Scott County and elsewhere to thwart the glitches: “If we have any calls that the audio is more difficult than others, we work together with partners in the room to make sure we have an address to send responders … to ensure all information that can be gathered is.
“Our last resort would be disconnecting with the caller … and calling them right back to get a better connection with them. We try not to do this as we don’t want to disconnect phone calls if we don’t have to.
“Illinois does a great job of gathering initial information for us as a redundancy, so we can call them to verify an address if we need to clarify anything and if we believe we didn’t hear something correctly.”
Added Seiver: “Dispatchers can’t hear what a caller is saying, and they don’t give a damn about technology. They want to help.”