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Some Oakland 911 Callers Get The Runaround When Asking For Help

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) -- When you call 911, you expect to get connected directly to a dispatcher who can send help your way. People who call for help from cellphones in one Bay Area city said that is not happening.

Jasmine Shepard does not like to talk about the time she was assaulted at a coin laundry in Oakland. She does have plenty to say about her call to 911. "When they asked me where I was, that is when they started transferring my call to somewhere else," Shepard told KPIX 5.

What Shepard did not know was that because she was using a cellphone, her call did not go straight to the Oakland Police Department. Instead, it came to the California Highway Patrol's regional call center in Vallejo. From there, she was transferred to Oakland's dispatch center, where she was put on hold.

"It felt like forever. It was really scary," she said.

The same thing happened to KPIX 5 reporter Christin Ayers last summer. She witnessed a man firing a gun about 20 feet from her in West Oakland. When she called 911, critical seconds passed before she was connected to the Highway patrol, then Oakland dispatch, before being put on hold. If she had been dialing from any other major city, she would have avoided that runaround.

"I don't know why Oakland is doing that," said Brian Fontes with the National Emergency Number Association, a group focused on emergency communications. He said all 911 calls from cellphones used to go through the CHP. Five years ago, the state spent almost $8 million in taxpayer money on rerouting calls to local communities.

"If you can create efficiencies by having the 911 call go directly to the 911 center that is most appropriate to answer it, the better it will be. It saves time and in response to emergencies, time matters," Fontes said.

The only holdouts in the entire state: the small community of Atherton, and Oakland.

"Unfortunately we are not accepting cellphone calls here," said Regina Harris Gilyard, who runs Oakland's 911 call center. Gilyard told KPIX 5 she does not have the staff or the capacity to manage it.

It's already bad enough: Oakland is six seconds over the recommended industry time of 10 seconds for answering a 911 call. Add the nine-second average to get through to the CHP first, it becomes 25 seconds. Gilyard admitted that is a long time.

And that's just the average time. KPIX 5 was at the CHP dispatch center when a man named Jerry called 911 after witnessing a robbery in Oakland. "Ok Jerry, I am going to try to get Oakland on the line, ok? Try to stay a safe distance away, ok?" the dispatcher told the caller.

We counted. It took a full 28 seconds before the dispatcher was able to transfer the call to Oakland.

For Shepard, who gave up after Oakland dispatchers put her on hold, it's all very frustrating. "That's ridiculous!" she said. "I hate to talk bad about Oakland, but it has more crime than other places, so it should definitely be on top of it."

The CHP said if it didn't have to take 911 cellphone calls for Oakland, it would free up dispatchers to take more calls from motorists on Bay Area freeways.

Apparently, Oakland officials turned down their share of the $8 million in taxpayer money to help them take their own 911 cellphone calls. KPIX 5 asked the city why, but did not get a response as of Wednesday night.

Anyone attempting to call 911 in Oakland from a cell phone can use an alternate number - (510) 777-3211 - until the city begins taking its own 911 mobile phone calls.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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