When 8-year-old Beka Brookshire flips open her home telephone book, three large numbers grace the inside cover - 911. In school and on television, she’s taught those three numbers will bring help in an emergency.
But if Beka dials 911 from her Priest Lake home no one will come. The number rings to a computer that says: “Hang up. Wait a moment and dial your operator.”
The majority of Bonner County residents have no 911 service. Of the eight telephone exchanges in this sprawling 2,000-square-mile county, only two have access to 911 service. Although voters approved a 911 system last fall, technical snags may keep it from starting for at least a year.
“Do you know how hard it is for me to teach my daughter not to dial 911?” said Gary Brookshire, who also is vice president of Priest Lake emergency medical technicians.
Everyone assumes 911 works anywhere - it’s a standard across the country, he said.
With more than 20 police, fire and ambulance agencies in the county, residents are left scrambling to find the in the county, residents are left scrambling to find the proper telephone number. In Priest Lake, Priest River and Clark Fork, residents need to know three different numbers to summon fire crews, an ambulance or a deputy.
Those numbers are not easy to find or remember in an emergency when people tend to panic, authorities said. It’s even worse for newcomers and tourists who are accustomed to dialing 911.
“All of Bonner County is promoting tourism and everybody moving here is used to having 911 service,” said Gary Davis, an EMT in the county for 14 years. “Imagine being a 5-year-old taught to dial that number and getting a recording.”
Precious minutes are lost when residents hunt for emergency numbers, so Davis and a coalition of EMTs pushed for a county-wide 911 system last year. Voters overwhelmingly agreed, passing the measure with an 80 percent approval rating. The county is now trying to put the service together, but expects it to be a year before it’s up and running.
A legal technicality may stall it even longer. Commissioners forgot to pass a law allowing a board to oversee the 911 service before the voters approved the system. The state attorney general’s office is reviewing the issue to decide if the election was valid.
In the meantime, emergency service providers gnash their teeth, curse the existing system, and hope delays in reporting emergencies don’t cost a life.
“The population and recreation use in this area is growing way too fast for the system we have now to be effective or safe,” said Bonner County Sheriff Chip Roos. “It’s a sorry excuse for handling emergency services.”
When the sheriff’s department received new patrol cars and trucks last year, they came with large 911 stickers on the sides. The stickers had to be removed.
Emergency service workers say the absence of a 911 service already is taking a human toll.
“It’s hard to judge if someone didn’t survive because they were delayed in reaching us, but there have been cases where because of delays the outcome was questionable,” Davis said. “We have 22 emergency numbers in this county and I couldn’t even tell you what they all are. If I didn’t have my radio and couldn’t call out for help I would have no idea.”
For example, if someone calls the police department in Priest River at night, it’s possible no one will be in the office to answer, Roos said. The caller then has to try the sheriff’s department. A dispatcher there will notify the ambulance, fire crew or a deputy. That means the information has to be repeated several times before it gets to the proper agency.
“It’s like the old game of telephone. Someone says something and it gets turned around the more times it is repeated. That’s not good when we are dealing with people’s lives,” Davis said.
If a caller dials the wrong agency or one out of their service area, they are given the correct number to call, wasting more critical minutes.
In the case of a heart attack the rule is to start CPR within four to six minutes to improve someone’s chance of survival. If it takes two or three minutes to get the call, that leaves one minute to get there.
Within the last month there were two emergency calls to Sandpoint’s 911 system for car accidents outside the city’s jurisdiction. The city relayed the information to the sheriff’s department, then sent a medical team from the fire department. The sheriff’s department thought the medical team was an ambulance crew and did not dispatch one. The result: It was 15 minutes before an ambulance arrived to one accident.
Fortunately, Davis said, the injuries were not life-threatening, but those waiting for the ambulance were angry with the crew when it finally arrived.
“There is a lot of opportunity for confusion with the system we have now,” Brookshire said. With a new 911 system there will be a central command center. All emergency services will be dispatched from that location.
When a snowmobiler was caught and killed in an avalanche last weekend near Priest Lake, Brookshire said calls were going to all different agencies. People were calling the sheriff, ambulance, U.S. Forest Service and Department of Lands.
“We were getting all kinds of people trying to make a decision and we ended up with a delayed response to the rescue. We are overdue for this system.”
The situation is even more critical at Priest Lake, a remote area were access is difficult. A person who suffers massive injuries needs to get to a major trauma hospital within the first hour, what emergency workers refer to as “the golden hour.”
“At Priest Lake it’s always a race against the clock,” Brookshire said. “We are 45 minutes from any hospital, let alone a major one. If there is a 10-minute delay in getting the right number you are already past the golden hour.”
Local agencies pass out refrigerator magnets and stickers with emergency numbers on them. It hasn’t helped. In Clark Fork, EMTs called 10 residents and asked them for the number to call for an ambulance. Only two could give the number. The others even had trouble finding it in the telephone book.
A county-wide 911 system has been bandied about for 17 years. Commissioner Dale Van Stone credited “passionate” emergency workers for finally getting it off the ground.
“There will be some glitches along the way, but this will be a huge benefit to the entire county,” he said. “We should have had it years ago.”