Alaska Officials Warn Outdated 911 System Is a Danger

Gov. Bill Walker has called for $9.5 million in state spending to centralize and modernize the call system.

by Alex DeMarban, Alaska Dispatch News / April 11, 2018

(TNS) — State officials say a plan to modernize Alaska's archaic 911 system could have prevented tragedies like the death of a Bethel man who went missing in November but never returned.

Among the flaws in the statewide system, emergency calls from cellphones don't track caller locations throughout most of the state, as they do in a handful of urban areas such as Anchorage or in much of the Lower 48, officials said.

The problems extend to rural hub cities such as Bethel or even Nome, a community that was an early pioneer of the nation's 911 system.

Gov. Bill Walker has called for $9.5 million in state spending to centralize the call system. But at least one lawmaker has concerns because most of the money would be diverted from a plan to help pay for a seismic study in the potentially oil-rich Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, considered by many Alaskans as vital to the state's long-term economy.

The 911 situation was tragic for 25-year-old Robert Nick of Bethel, said Walt Monegan, Alaska's public safety commissioner, on Friday.

Nick was found dead Nov. 28 after becoming lost, apparently trying to walk to a village 7 miles from Bethel, the largest city in Western Alaska with 6,400 residents.

Nick had called Bethel police from a cellphone 10 days earlier, to say he had lost his way. With no location information, searchers couldn't quickly find him.

Upgrading the system so emergency responders can find anyone with an operating cellphone is a key motive as the Walker administration seeks funding from the Legislature, Monegan said.

The plan aims to unify the Alaska State Troopers' emergency dispatch system, which currently relies on four regional hubs that use different computer systems.

"That's a goal for us," Monegan said. "A lot will be depending on how far an individual travels from a cell tower. If you got too far to even have cell service it's not going to help."

Some 80 percent of 911 calls come from cellphones, so the lack of location information for calls outside large, urban areas such as Anchorage or Fairbanks is a major problem, he said.

He said Alaska's statewide system is about 30 years behind other states.

The inadequacies in Alaska exist 50 years after the Western Alaska city of Nome, population 3,800, helped introduce the nationally recognized crisis number, officials said.

Nome appears to be the second community to create a 911 system, six days after the first 911 call was made in Haleyville, Alabama, said Dan Henry, director of government affairs for Virginia-based National Emergency Number Association, which strives to improve 911 systems.

But as in many other Alaska communities, Nome's 911 system now lags behind those in other states, state officials said.

Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, said Sunday that he's always a supporter of efforts to improve safety.

But Bishop said he wants to be assured the governor's change of funding plans doesn't slow efforts for seismic research in 19-million-acre ANWR. Development in the refuge's coastal plain has been off limits for decades until Republicans in Congress and President Donald Trump agreed to open it in December.

"It's the chance of a lifetime and you've got to strike while the iron's hot," Bishop said.

Walker's office said in an email that he fully supports development in the coastal plain, but added that it's necessary to prioritize scant state resources to address life-and-death issues. "Everyone deserves to reliably know someone is on the other end of the line if they call for help in an emergency situation," the statement said.

The improvements can't come soon enough, said Jody Potts, who coordinates village public safety officers in 42 Interior villages for the Tanana Chiefs Conference.

She said the vast majority of those villages rely on landline phones and must dial 1-800 numbers to reach trooper posts, instead of 911.

The 11 digits are easily forgotten in a crisis, Potts said, so she distributes magnets showing the four 800 emergency numbers in her region, including 800-656-1203 for one cluster of villages and 800-675-4398 for another.

"If you're experiencing violence and there's a crisis, you won't remember an 800 number, especially if you're a kid," she said. "Everyone in the country knows 911, but that doesn't exist in (parts of) this state."

The lack of a simple reporting system means crimes can go unreported — and unpunished, she said.

"It allows crimes to perpetuate if no one is held accountable," she said.

Pat Pitney, state budget director, said about 180,000 Alaskans lack access to a modern 911 system, according to an April 2 letter to lawmakers.

Emergency calls made across 92 percent of Alaska — not counting urban areas of Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough — lead to a series of transferred calls. Any location data is lost, reducing chances a caller will reach a dispatcher who can quickly help, Pitney said.

Alaska is one of three states without a unified 911 system, she said.

Also, emergency calls made in most of the state lack data describing the caller's number or even the fact that they're making an emergency call, according to paperwork provided by the Department of Public Safety.

The caller must stay on the line to describe their location and what they're calling about, and provide a call-back number.

But even then, the system is flawed. Emergency calls from rural areas don't always reach someone, said John Rockwell, statewide 911 coordinator with the Department of Public Safety. In some cases, people get an answering machine or a busy signal.

Rockwell said he's worked with phone companies to allow 911 or 800 numbers to be called from cellphones. That allows people familiar with 911, including visitors to rural communities, to make an emergency call where cellphones work.

Joel Jackson, president of the tribal government in Kake, said emergency calls in the Southeast community of 600 are sometimes transferred to different law enforcement posts. The callers must give the same information to multiple call takers.

"It's frustrating to people that are in a crisis," Jackson said. "Your family member is ill or something bad is happening, and there you are talking to people who should be getting ahold of the proper people here."

©2018 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.