When reporting a fire, best to use a land line

Olivenhain incident shows the downside of using a cell phone

Friday night, February 20, a eucalyptus tree caught on fire in the 600 block of Windmill Ranch Road in Olivenhain. Around 8:00 p.m., residents Nadine and Robert noticed what they described as a “giant torch” on a neighbor’s backyard 45-foot tree. Robert dialed 911.

Using his land line, Robert claims he stayed on hold for five minutes before 911 answered. Another neighbor said he had been on hold for seven minutes.

The homeowners were not at home at the time. Robert was standing in front of his house, on hold. His wife Nadine, knowing the rural area’s history of previous wildfires, was going door-to-door alerting neighbors.

A fire truck from the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Department came from the east, heading west on El Camino del Norte. The truck mistakenly passed the house and the burning tree as it headed toward Rancho Santa Fe Road.

Robert tried to flag down the truck, wondering why a Rancho Santa Fe Fire Dept. unit responded first (Encinitas’ fire station #6 is three blocks away). The fire truck quickly returned to the fire, and Encinitas units also responded. The fire was put out quickly with some damage to a few outbuildings.

Encinitas Fire Dept. battalion chief John Blumeyer says the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection engine was responding to a report of a possible illegal burn. A caller had smelled smoke in the area but did not give the department an exact address. His department received the call from 911 dispatch at 8:06 p.m. and responded.

911 calls should be automatically routed to the local police agency or, if near a freeway, to the California Highway Patrol. But both the CHP and Encinitas’ Blumeyer confirmed, that may not always be the case.

“With cell phones, dispatch does not get an exact address,” Blumeyer said. He added it depends on which cell tower the phone hits, as to which agency gets the first call. If possible, it is better to call 911 from a land line, as dispatchers then have an exact address.

Most North County fire agencies receive their response calls from a shared dispatcher, NorthCom, run through RSF Fire. While Blumeyer couldn’t explain why it took so long for the sheriff’s dispatch to answer the 911 calls, he did explain that with so many cell phones, you’ll sometimes have 30 people calling about the same things, and the system gets overwhelmed.

Historical footnote: In the Harmony Grove fire of 1996, and the 2007 Witch Creek fire, the Encinitas community of Olivenhain was hit in its eastern boundary and evacuations of people, pets, and horses were ordered, due to the large amount of open space, shrubs, and trees — mostly quick igniting eucalypti. In the Witch Creek fire, as the fire swept from the east through Rancho Santa Fe, local residents credit a change in wind patterns that pushed the quickly approaching fire line southwest, rather than into the rural community of Olivenhain.

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Hey, police/fire/emergency responders: We are not living in 1965 any longer. If your system only runs best when people use land lines, then it's time for you to update your systems ASAP so that you can respond just as quickly when people use their mobile phones.

Just some clarification: The communications system for fire and emergency response locally is very "state of the art" and the dispatchers are extremely professional. Many of the issues lie with the multitude of access methods used to report emergencies. Many of the newer "smart" phones are GPS enabled so that they can relay location information to the 911 dispatcher. However, some phones are not GPS enabled and/or the owner choses to disable the feature. This means that the location must be gleaned from the cell tower location which is far less accurate. Additionally, GPS enabled phones will give a location in LAT/LONG coordinates which then have to be mapped and only give a location on a map, not a specific address (GPS coordinates can be off by as much as 300', making locating a specific incident/address difficult.) Land-lines, the "old style" are assigned to a single address so the information can be stored as a fixed location in the computer dispatch system and, even without any voice communication, the address is available. A word to the wary: the "new" system in many landlines uses a "VOIP" system, or "Voice over Internet Protocol". This is the system used by most providers that bundle phone, internet, and cable. The phone signal actually goes through the cable internet system and may not be tied directly to your address. Check with your phone system provider to be sure. In short, the 911 system is very good but constantly playing catch-up to the technology changes that are occurring. When using 911, regardless of what phone you use, always stay on the line until the dispatcher says it is OK to hang up, know where you are and be able to tell the dispatcher the address of the emergency, give your name and call back number if asked so they can re-contact you if necessary, and only use the 911 number in a true emergency to prevent overloading the system.

Perhaps the dispatcher could ask the cell callers for the address?

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