On Monday, Governor Walker asked the chairs of both Finance Committees to re-allocate $10 million towards the state’s ailing 911 system. The money was originally proposed for oil and gas research, but the Governor’s office said that this was more important. One in four Alaskans don’t have access to a standard 911 emergency number, and the system has been impairing rural residents' ability to reach first responders for years.
If you call 911 in rural Alaska, there’s a good chance something will go wrong. Let’s say you need help in Aniak, for instance. Commissioner of Public Safety Walt Monegan attended a meeting in the village last year.
"And they said, ‘you know, by the way, sometimes when you dial 911 you get an answering machine,'" he said. "That floored me."
That doesn’t just happen in Aniak. The Department of Public Safety’s John Rockwell said that he’s heard plenty of stories like this. Then there are the communities where 911 just sort of dead-ends. Rockwell said that happened to a colleague of his when she visited a village.
"The person she was visiting had an allergic reaction to something," he said. "So she called 911 and she just got, ‘I’m sorry, this service is not available in your area.’"
When that didn’t work, the woman’s friend gestured to a 10 digit, non-emergency number written on the wall. The woman tried to call it, "but she didn’t have her contacts in," said Rockwell. "So she couldn’t even see it!"
In Alaska, 911 runs into trouble in the best of times. In January, KYUK reported that Bethel’s 911 system can’t track callers’ locations if they’re on a cell phone; residents are encouraged to tell the police exactly where they are if they need help.
But if you leave incorporated areas like Bethel for Alaska’s rural communities, the problems can get a lot worse. Many communities can’t fund their own police departments or dispatch centers, so in villages like Aniak, 911 is sometimes redirected to the area’s lone Alaska State Trooper or Village Public Safety Officer. In communities without that level of law enforcement, emergency calls might be directed to the mayor's personal number, or the fire chief’s.
If anything goes wrong with that person’s phone, or if that person leaves town, communities can lose their emergency call services. And in many cases there’s only one person available to pick up the calls, which Commissioner Walt Monegan says poses an obvious problem if there's an earthquake or a fire. "If the VPSO or the Trooper responds to the call, what happens when there's a second call?" he said. "Who answers that?"
The Department of Public Safety has a plan to fix this, said Monegan. The solution is a state-wide 911 system, and a number of rural emergency calls are already re-directed to a State Trooper dispatch center in Fairbanks. Monegan is fortifying that center now so that it can take calls from a wider range of rural areas.
Callers should be able to call 911 from anywhere in Alaska by June 2018, said Monegan. But the Fairbanks center could become overloaded, and it still wouldn’t have the technology it needs to track callers’ locations, which in rural Alaska can be a problem. "That gets kind of dicey if you're out there on the river or on a snowmachine and you're lost, disoriented," said Monegan. "You dial and we ask you, 'where are you?' And then you're going to say, ‘well... I'm lost.'"
On Monday, Governor Walker asked the Legislature's Finance Committee Chairs to put $10 million towards solving those problems. The money would go toward creating a State Trooper dispatch center in Anchorage and implementing statewide Next-Gen technology so that 911 could identify where callers are. The $10 million was originally designated for oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but for the time being the Governor's office says that improving rural public safety is more urgent than promoting oil drilling on the arctic coastal plain.