Dual Numbers Hamper Crisis Response

The pedestrian who saw Sixth College freshman Daniel Sobel fall to his death from Gilman Parking Structure last month in an apparent suicide did what almost anyone would do during an emergency: Dial 911.

However, the witness, a Sixth College sophomore who wished to remain anonymous, did not anticipate that the decision to dial 911 from her cell phone would actually delay police response to the scene.

UCSD, along with many other universities, has its own police force. The UCSD Police Department, which only has jurisdiction on and immediately around the campus, also has its own number, (858) 534-HELP. Dialing 911 from any land line on campus transfers an emergency call directly to campus police, and 534-HELP will connect both cell phones and land lines to campus police, according to Detective John Smart. If dialed from a cell phone, however, the traditional 911 emergency number connects the call to a California Highway Patrol office located in the area code of the cell phone, forcing the CHP emergency dispatcher from the outside area to transfer the call to the appropriate local authorities, Smart said.

“You lose response time when you switch dispatchers,” he said. “It’s like when you play the telephone game. From here to there, a lot of things will change.”

In Sobel’s case, the witness initially called 911 from her cell phone at 11:34 p.m. on Feb. 9. After being notified by CHP officials at 11:39 p.m., UCSD police arrived at the scene at 11:44 p.m., and the ambulance arrived one minute later, a total of 11 minutes after the original distress call was placed.

The witness, who talked to 911 dispatchers twice from her cell phone, said that she was outraged that authorities took so long to respond during the “most serious emergency I’ve ever faced in my life.”

“It would have been faster to run to the hospital across the street,” the witness said, referring to the VA Medical Center. “It’s so shocking because there are three hospitals nearby.”

Smart said that campus police always respond as quickly as possible when a life is in danger, but would not say whether or not a faster response time could have made a difference in providing aid to Sobel, who was treated unsuccessfully at the scene by paramedics.

“I don’t think anyone is ever going to know,” Smart said.

Mary Garcia, the manager of the UCSD Police Department’s division of records and communications, said that, ideally, 534-HELP should be dialed in any on-campus emergency. However, students should always use 911 if they are uncertain of what to do, because the call will eventually be forwarded to campus police, she said.

“If a student uses 911 from a cell phone, it’s very important for that student to say exactly where they are on the UCSD campus in order for the dispatcher to correctly relay the call,” Garcia said.

However, that was not the case during the initial call, the witness said.

The witness, whose cell phone area code is 858 — a San Diego county area code that connects an emergency call to a local CHP office — said that the 911 dispatcher asked for her location several times, and that the dispatcher had to call back again a short time later to reconfirm the location. The witness also said that the dispatcher gave no mention of 534-HELP during either call.

“It didn’t seem like they had good connections,” the witness said. “I kept saying where I was again and again, and I was practically screaming at the dispatcher. It was ridiculous.”

Orientation programs for new students and staff and resident-adviser training materials contain information advocating the use of 534-HELP for on-campus emergencies in order to get a faster response, according to Vice Chancellor of Student Life Joseph W. Watson.

Despite Watson’s insistence that the university encourages students to use 534-HELP, the keychain with emergency contact phone numbers given to new on-campus residents suggests 534-HELP for nonemergency use only, and the magnet provided by UCSD Housing and Dining Services for the same purpose states, “Dial 911,” with no reference at all to the 534-HELP number.

Sixth College resident adviser Maria Sanchez, a John Muir College junior, said that her training requires her to mention 534-HELP to residents, but beyond mentioning the number, RAs are only required to post the number on the residential bulletin board.