Judge Colleen Sterne threw out a wrongful death lawsuit this week filed on behalf of the family of 24-year-old Jordan Soto, who died nearly two years ago of a medical emergency. The lawsuit against the City of Santa Barbara, the California Highway Patrol (CHP), the state’s Public Safety Communications, among others, alleged a misrouted 911 phone call contributed to delays and cost Soto her life.
On January 30, 2014, Soto’s relatives found her unconscious in their family home on Tinker Way less than one mile from a fire station. But when they called 911 on a cell phone, the call was routed to the Ventura CHP’s dispatch center, and then transferred to Santa Barbara’s dispatch center located downtown. The lawsuit alleged the family member gave their accurate address but the wrong one was ultimately relayed to the first responders, who spent about 20 minutes looking for the incorrect location.
In her ruling, Sterne found that, according to government code, a public employee “is not liable based upon an exercise of discretion.” Santa Barbara city attorney Ariel Calonne said California code contains extensive immunity for emergency dispatch errors. “Here it was a very tragic event and the issue really has to do with the state’s 911 system and how it does not deal appropriately with cell phone calls,” he said.
Los Angeles-based attorney Mark Peacock, who represents the Soto family, said he is still determining if he will appeal the decision. “There’s an old saying that you can’t sue the king,” he said. “It’s hard to sue our king — the government.”
“It’s a bummer because it’s not just Jordan’s case,” he added. Many people have no idea their emergency cell phone call is routed all over the place,” he said. “It’s really sad that the 911 system has clearly failed. … I don’t think anyone is disputing that.”
The Soto case was a graphic example of a problem that several Santa Barbara officials — fire chief Pat McElroy, Santa Barbara County medical director Angelo Salvucci, Assemblymember Das Williams, and others — spoke to during previous state 911 advisory board meetings. The problem is that when people call 911 on their cell phone, a dispatcher operating out of a regional CHP office often answers the call and then must transfer it, wasting valuable time. What’s more, the CHP dispatcher — often several miles away — may be unfamiliar with local landmarks or streets that a nearby dispatcher could easily understand. For Santa Barbara residents, the closest CHP dispatch center is about 30 miles south in Ventura.
The reason many cell phone calls are routed to CHP dispatch centers dates back decades, when cell phones were primarily in cars, and most 911 calls came from highways and freeways.
Now, only a small percentage of 911 cell phone calls are made from the freeway, but a large number of them are still routed to CHP. It’s unclear exactly how many because, according to officials, a clear systematic understanding does not exist. “The way it is now, it’s like whack-a-mole,” McElroy said.
In July, McElroy drove out to Isla Vista to test where a 911 call from his personal cell phone would be routed. In 2011, McElroy said, it was recommended that calls sent to UCSB’s cell tower at Storke Tower be routed to the Sheriff’s dispatch center rather than the Ventura CHP dispatch center. In April, Assemblymember Williams’s office, which has been birddogging this issue for years, announced the CHP would request Verizon Wireless to re-route that sector directly to Sheriff’s dispatch after analysis from that specific tower. But the work was never done, and during his test in July, McElroy found the problem still had not been fixed. “Nobody knew and nobody checked,” he said. The cell tower has since been re-routed after McElroy notified the county coordinator.
McElroy added the problem is that a complete analysis of all of the cell sectors has not been done. “It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge; you have to keep going back over it,” he said.
Earlier this year, the governor’s Office of Emergency Services took steps to review call transfer reports of each of the dispatch centers, also known as PSAPs, throughout the state. It’s unclear what came of that project. There is a 911 advisory board meeting scheduled for January.