LISBON - Calling the fire department directly during an emergency instead of 911 is not something Columbiana County's 911 director would recommend.
Robert Emmons was responding to last week's suggestion by the Calcutta and Glenmoor fire chiefs that in the future the residents in their service area (St. Clair Township) call the fire departments directly when possible because of routing problems with the 911 system.
"I oppose that suggestion for emergency situations, because most often when people are experiencing an emergency their minds focus on the crisis and not their location ... When someone dials 911 from either a cell phone or landline telephone and screams 'fire' and then drops the phone, at least we know where to send the fire trucks," said Emmons, in an email response to the newspaper.
Several fire chiefs in the county have claimed that some 911 calls are going to other counties and then have to be rerouted back, losing precious minutes in the process.
The most recent alleged incident occurred 10 days ago, when 911 was called after a St. Clair Township resident's pickup truck caught fire at his home and it took 20 minutes for the notification to reach the fire department. The first call made by the person's neighbor reportedly went to another county, and when no fire truck arrived within 10 minutes, the truck owner called 911 on his cell phone and he does know where that call went.
Meanwhile, a call was made on a landline to the East Liverpool Police Department, and the first firefighters arrived six minutes later. The police department serves as the 911 dispatching center for East Liverpool and St. Clair Township under the county's system.
As a result of the problem, the Calcutta and Glenmoor chiefs recommended St. Clair Township residents add the fire department number to their cell phones so they have the option of calling them directly.
Emmons said the only 911 call he is aware of was placed by the truck owner and received by the East Liverpool Police Department at 11:42 p.m. Nov. 4. Records show the call was transferred one minute later to the fire department's dispatching service, and dispatchers were on the phone with another caller about the fire.
"I don't have any information on the time sequence for the fire department, I just know when the call came in," he said. "911 had nothing to with whatever problems there were."
The wireless component of the county's 911 system was rolled out earlier this year and is still in the process of being implemented. At the 911 advisory committee's Oct. 24 meeting, Emmons estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of 911 calls made from cell phones are going to the proper dispatching center and need no rerouting. He said the rest are likely made from inside buildings or vehicles, which interfere with the system's ability to pinpoint the caller's location.
At the same meeting, an East Liverpool dispatcher said they were having problems pinpointing 911 cell calls that last 30 second or less. Some tweaks were to be made to reduce the amount of time needed for the system to pinpoint call locations.
Emmons conceded some calls are sometimes bounced to adjacent counties, mostly because of the terrain, but none are leaving the immediate area, as was alleged.
"Some calls routed to an adjacent county, but they are far fewer now that we have activated enhanced 911 for cell phones," he said, adding when that happens the dispatchers can reroute the call immediately by the press of a button.
Emmons was unaware of the complaints and the action taken by the Calcutta and Glenmoor chiefs until he read about it the local newspapers. He urged residents to have faith in the county's 911 system.
"Our 911 system is incredibly reliable, extremely accurate and light years ahead of where we were just five short years ago. People in Columbiana County can be very proud of our 911 system and depend on it being there when they need it," he said.