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911 a service to value, not abuse

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Posted: Wednesday, February 15, 2006 12:00 am

Bandera County Fire Marshal Ralph Dresser is leading a campaign across all three school districts that service Bandera County to educate parents, teachers and students as to the value and responsibility of the 911 emergency phone service.

Dresser was inspired to begin this campaign after a fourth-grader at Hill Country Elementary dialed 911 four times and hung up on Jan. 18, causing a scare among county emergency service workers.

"Hang-ups cause a dilemma," Dresser said. "Dispatch thinks they have an emergency, such as here where they had four calls over two hours and nowhere to go to; they want to be able to respond."

The fourth-grader inadvertently dialed 911 during class on a deactivated cell phone that his parents had given him. Even when deactivated, however, if the battery is working, 911 can still be called on almost any cell phone, Dresser said.

"You can also dial 911 on most payphones without putting in a coin," Dresser said.

When a 911 call goes through in Bandera County, it goes directly to the Sheriff's Office dispatch, and up to three dispatchers attempt to identify where the call originated. If the call is a hang-up, they dispatch a deputy immediately to check on the welfare of those where the call came from.

On house phones, the 911 computers can identify the address from which the call originated. However, with cell phones, the only address seen by the dispatcher is that of the cell tower through which the call is being passed. Newer cell phones have Global Positioning System chips in them which allow the exact location of the cell phone to be identified, but this requires specific software which Bandera County does not have in-house.

"We do not have it ourselves, but we can get assistance for it very quickly," Dresser said.

Allowing 911 service on deactivated cell phones was a concept that originated in larger metropolitan cities where old cell phones could be turned in and then distributed to those who could not afford home phone service. Should an emergency arise, the individual or family could then use the cell phone to call 911. It has since become a standard practice among cell providers in all areas.

The 911 service is funded entirely through fees collected by phone companies, both traditional and cellular.

Dresser said that he will be speaking to the school district representatives to ensure students are made knowledgeable of the 911 system, how it works, and how to respect it.

"I will be talking to students, teachers and parents," Dresser said. "I want them to understand that 911 is the best friend we've got for emergency response - we are so fortunate to have it - but it cannot be misused. It cannot be put in the context of a toy or plaything."

Misusing 911 services is a Class C misdemeanor crime with a fine of up to $500.

"The tragedy is, when someone is playing on a phone, they might be blocking someone with a true emergency from getting through," Dresser said. "It's a great system, let's not misuse it; let's understand what it can do and how it should be used."

For emergencies, 911 is the quickest way to reach those who can help. For non-emergencies, the Bandera County Sheriff's Office Dispatch can be reached at 830-796-3771.

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