Witnesses to a fatal accident on Lake Tahoe's Highway 28 say they waited in frustration Monday night as their 911 cell-phone calls were routed to Sacramento police.
The head-on accident about 11 p.m. Monday took the life of a 32-year-old Lake Forest, Calif., resident, Scott Marshal McCullough.
Several cars stopped to aid victims of the crash a few miles north of Spooner Summit, and three calls were made by cell phone to 911. But the calls were routed through Sacramento police dispatchers, which resulted in delays, police acknowledged.
The dispatcher was trying to send help from Truckee, and officers were also sent to the Mount Rose area - well north of the accident.
One witness to the accident, a Carson City woman who prefers to remain anonymous, said the delays may not have made a difference in this accident. But she was nevertheless disturbed by the apparent confusion.
"There was a fatality and other injuries, and we needed help now," she said Tuesday.
"If this operator had been familiar with the area, there wouldn't have been a problem," said said. "I don't think it would have mattered in this incident, but in accidents like these sometimes minutes can matter. That's the tragedy here."
McCullough was northbound on Highway 28 when his 1992 Jeep CJ drifted off the edge of the road, according to the Nevada Highway Patrol. He over-corrected, swerving into the path of an oncoming Chevy S-10 pickup driven by 16-year-old Corey Jacob Colman, of Colfax, Calif.
Jacob and his passenger Adam Peabody, 17, of Auburn, Calf., were not seriously injured in the accident. McCullough lay dead at the scene as onlookers bandaged the wounded, watched and waited for help.
The Reno Police Department Dispatch Center received the call about 11 p.m. Officers were on the scene by 11:18, according to Troy Lindley, spokesman for the NHP.
Richard Mirgon, director of communications and emergency management in Douglas County, said a cell phone will pick the first, best signal, and calls from the Lake Tahoe Basin are often routed to California.
"When calls are made from Lake Tahoe's east shore, the western horizon is the best route," Mirgon said. "If (911) callers don't accurately identify their location they can end up up in a trap, talking to a series of dispatchers that will transfer calls to authorities who they think are close by.
"Many calls in Carson and Douglas County go to the Reno Police Department," Mirgon said. "We had an incident in Douglas a number of years ago. A person called for a neighbor who was having a heart attack. He used a cell phone and provided house number and street name. The call was dispatched to Reno and emergency personnel were dispatched to a similar Reno address, resulting in a 40-minute delay."
"Because Reno is the biggest ballgame, a large percentage of those calls do come to us," said Lt. Jim Ballard of the Reno Police Department. "People have a false idea as to how it works."
The traffic accident on Highway 28 was not related to an earlier Reno 911 system failure that occurred from 6:30-10 p.m. Monday, according to officials.
New technology will soon be able to pinpoint a cell phone's location, but it's a couple of years away. In the meantime, Ballard said there are ways to avoid the pitfalls:
-- Wireless phones don't provide location information or a call-back number, so if cell phone drops out, officials will not be able to call back or pinpoint a location.
-- It's important to give the dispatch center information including towns, landmarks, freeway exits, or mile markers. Know the trail or camping area name when hiking or camping with cell phones.
-- Global Positioning System devices can give both latitude and longitude, providing vital information for search and rescue professionals.
-- Call from a safe place, remain calm and be prepared to answer questions. The extent of injuries, hazards, numbers of bystanders, fires, and the presence of dangerous weapons are just a few of the variables that help officials prepare when approaching a crisis or accident