EVERETT — Say you’re in Mountlake Terrace, on the border with King County. There’s an emergency.
You call 911 with your cell phone. Previously, that call could’ve pinged off a cell tower in King County and been routed to a dispatcher there. That dispatcher would then find out you’re calling from Snohomish County and route you to SNO911, the agency that can send responders to your emergency.
That game of telephone loses precious seconds.
“You’re adding, at a minimum, 30 seconds of transfer time, plus probably another 30 seconds of time for the center to figure out this isn’t in our jurisdiction,” said SNO911’s executive director Kurt Mills. “It can be the difference between life and death.”
This used to happen all the time.
Nationwide, about one in every ten cell phone calls need to be transferred to the right agency, or what is called a public safety answering point, according to Intrado, a company that developed a new technology to fix the issue. In border areas, like south Snohomish County, that figure could go up to one in every two calls. Locally, it used to be an even bigger issue when the county had two 911 centers, SNOPAC in Everett and SNOCOM in Mountlake Terrace.
Those two merged in 2018 to form SNO911. That move saved an average of 21 seconds from about 4,000 emergency calls per month, Mills told The Daily Herald in 2018. Before, 130 calls needed to be transferred between the two Snohomish County call centers every day.
Landlines, becoming increasingly obsolete by the day, don’t have the same issue. Over 75% of 911 calls come from cell phones these days, Mills said.
The new Intrado technology, called Locate Before Route, routes callers to the correct call center based on the location of their phone, not the nearest cell tower, which could be across county lines.
SNO911 became the first in the nation to implement the tech back in October. The local call center got first dibs due to a connection with Intrado’s vice president of technology, John Snapp, who lives in Everett.
So your emergency call from Mountlake Terrace would now go to a local dispatcher immediately, without the need for a transfer.
An Intrado map shows dozens of calls on both sides of the Snohomish-King County border over a three-week period that went to the correct agency after the technology’s implementation but would’ve gone to the wrong dispatcher previously.
South Snohomish County isn’t the only border area affected. Calls from Stanwood could go to Skagit County responders. And reports from the Mukilteo waterfront used to sometimes come from cell towers on Whidbey Island, sending those callers to dispatchers across the water.
This exact issue plagued four callers on the morning of July 30, 2016. They were reporting a mass shooting at a Mukilteo house party. One was a young man with a gunshot wound. He needed an ambulance. He started talking with one dispatcher, but then had to be transferred. That man survived. Three others died.
After reading reports about the delay, Snapp saw SNO911 could benefit from his company’s new technology.
This month, Intrado started to roll out this new feature to 911 call centers across the country. That is expected to be finished by the end of next month, Snapp said. Currently, only callers with AT&T have access to the technology.
Mills hopes it soon expands to people using other providers, like Verizon and T-Mobile.
Nate Brogan, Intrado senior vice president, said it’s “only a matter of time that every wireless call in America benefits from this technology.”