El Morro cell tower solution for 911 calls remains elusive
By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
The Laguna Beach City Council agreed Tuesday to add a second school resource officer (SRO), a move city staffers claim would give the Laguna Beach Unified School District the lowest student to SRO ratio in Orange County.
If approved by the Board of Education on Nov. 12, the city and school district would equally split the $378,000 annual compensation for Cpl. Cornelius Ashton, Laguna Beach’s current school resource officer, and a second unidentified officer. This would be a steep increase from the district’s current contribution of $25,000 per year.
The City Council unanimously supported hiring a second school resource officer, but dedicating one to every campus, as some parents suggested, would be be a heavier lift.
Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow said the city has a finite operating budget, requiring city officials to make difficult decisions about where and when to allocate resources.
“I’d like to request we at least look at every school having a dedicated SRO,” he said.
Mayor Bob Whalen supported staff looking into the costs associated with having four school resource officers but seemed skeptical the school district could contribute more.
“I don’t think we’re going to get there on that one,” he said.
Councilmember Toni Iseman said the new school resource officer should dedicate a greater percentage of their time to El Morro Elementary School because of its location, which is the northern edge of Patrol Beat 1 and surrounded by Crystal Cove State Park.
The process for reprogramming the cell tower behind El Moro to forward 911 calls to the Laguna Beach Police Department might be more complicated than originally anticipated, Laguna Beach Police Capt. Jason Kravetz said.
For decades, all 911 calls were automatically routed to the California Highway Patrol, he said. In 2007, the state legislature changed the regulation and now cell towers send 911 calls to the agency receiving the greatest call volume.
About 80 percent of the El Morro cell tower’s calls are going to Newport Beach police. CHP is the runner, followed by Laguna Beach police, Kravetz said.
As a former telecommunications executive, Councilmember Sue Kempf wasn’t impressed with the state officials’ pushback on finding a solution for the El Morro cell tower.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me why these calls are ping-ponging around,” she said.
City Manager John Pietig said it doesn’t look like El Morro parents’ complaints about 911 calls would be solved by annexing the campus, Crystal Cove State Park Moro Campground, and other undeveloped land west of Moro Ridge Road.
“Frankly, I think the solution is going to be technological,” Pietig said. “This is not only a problem in Laguna Beach but throughout the United States, and I believe the technology exists to address it. It just hasn’t been implemented.”
Telecommunications companies’ roll-out of the 5G network, which involves installing larger number of antennas to improve connectivity, could improve the triangulation of cell users’ location and 911 call routing. A vocal group of Laguna Beach residents have expressed concern about the long-term health impacts of the electromagnetic fields created by 5G networks.
For non-emergency matters, the public can call the Laguna Beach Public Safety Communication Center at 949-497-0701, Kravetz said.
As a stop-gap measure, Iseman suggested that Laguna Beach police create a dedicated phone number that El Morro parents can call for Laguna Beach police dispatch.
Angela Harris, a mother of two students at El Morro and one at Thurston Middle School, said she was pleased with the efforts of the city and school district staffers to step-up school safety over the last month and a half.
Harris said she supports creating a direct phone number to Laguna police dispatch that’s “memorable and understandable” as a short-term solution for parents. However, she acknowledged that no matter how many times the PTA advertises the number, some parents will forget it exists.
Spencer Samuelian, a parent with three children in the school district, disagreed with Harris about asking the public to call any number but 911.
“I would probably never recommend calling a number for dispatch…911 is an emergency service number,” Samuelian said. “My concerns get solved with a dedicated SRO at El Morro.”