For years, Aleknagik’s 911 calls have gone through the Dillingham police. That’s finally changed
Aleknagik is a small community 20 miles up the road from Bristol Bay’s western hub of Dillingham. It has around 200 residents, but no local police.
That was dangerous, said Kay Andrews, Aleknagik’s city administrator.
“Five years ago, my daughter tried to call 911, and she was told to call another number,” Andrews said. “This was an emergency. She has no means to write another number and then hang up the phone and call another number.”
The problem was that 911 calls were routed to the Dillingham police, who don’t have jurisdiction in Aleknagik, because it’s outside of Dillingham’s city limits. The issue highlighted the patchwork — and often inefficient — emergency-call system in rural Alaska.
Nushagak Cooperative, the local utility co-op, announced Thursday that it rerouted Aleknagik’s 911 landline calls to the state troopers. It made the change before the Dillingham City Council’s meeting that day, when it was scheduled to hold a public hearing and vote on whether to make the switch.
Nushagak's operations manager, Trung Vo, said the co-op decided to reroute the calls after receiving complaints about emergency services in Aleknagik.
“Nushagak was proactive for our members to at least get them some sort of better level of service by switching them over sooner," he said. "So they can dial directly to state troopers and get some sort of help and response right away."
Dillingham's city council voted unanimously to approve the change.
GCI said Friday that it is in the process of rerouting emergency calls from cell phones in Aleknagik.
Until now, Aleknagik’s 911 system hinged on multiple calls to different agencies.
“When an Aleknagik person calls 911, the Dillingham Police Department answers it,” said Dillingham Police Chief Dan Pasquariello.
“Then we would have to contact the Alaska State Troopers and provide the information secondhand to the trooper dispatch, so they could dispatch a trooper,” he said, “or we tell the people to hang up and call the dispatchers.”
But that was far from ideal in an emergency.
In 2019, Aleknagik artist and small business owner Apay’uq Moore called 911 as someone tried to break into her house in the middle of the night. Dillingham police told her to call the troopers directly. She recounted the experience at a House Tribal Affairs Committee hearing on rural public safety.
“While someone is trying to get into my home, they were like, ‘Well, you need to call the troopers, and here’s the number.’ And then I had to find a pen,” she recalled. “I had to find a pen and paper as I’m shaking and terrified wondering what this person is here to do. And it was just a sobering moment to realize how self-reliant I was going to have to be.”
A trooper didn’t arrive until the next morning.
Moore's public discussion of her experience pushed local entities, like the Dillingham police, to re-examine how they handle 911 calls from Aleknagik.
“You’re not going to be getting help in any sort of timely fashion when the calls are being passed around to different people,” she said.
Technical difficulties between rural Alaska and Fairbanks
Aleknagik is among the many rural communities in Alaska that have struggled with inadequate emergency call services.
Unlike many other parts of the country, Alaska’s state officials don't have authority over the 911 system.
Its system is a hybrid of local and regional 911 dispatch centers. And while urban areas like Anchorage and Fairbanks have their own centers, calls from rural areas are transferred multiple times.
The state used to contract with local police in regional hubs like Dillingham to dispatch Village Public Safety Officers and Alaska State Troopers. But it largely dismantled that arrangement, and in 2016 the City of Dillingham lost its annual $20,000 contract — and the ability to dispatch state public safety officers.
Trooper Capt. Rick Roberts, with the Department of Public Safety, said several reasons led to that change. Cost-cutting was one. But there were other issues, too.
“When we don’t own or control the dispatch center that’s taking the call, we were getting different levels of service among the different agencies that were answering our after-hours phone calls for us," he said.
"So troopers were getting inconsistent dispatch information. Sometimes it was very good, sometimes it was not complete,” he said “Sometimes it was, ‘Hey, call this person,’ with no other information. Other times it may have been a dispatcher or call-taker at one of these other agencies that went the extra mile and got us a lot of information.”
When the contract was canceled, Dillingham’s local police lost the technical ability to dispatch state public safety officers in the wider region — even up the road in Aleknagik.
But when people in Aleknagik called 911 the phone still rang in Dillingham.
That’s because the two communities share the same phone prefix of 842, so calls weren’t rerouted to the troopers in 2016.
Redirecting rural 911 calls to Fairbanks is a step toward standardizing the system, Roberts said. But right now, the Fairbanks dispatch center can't to track the location of 911 calls from rural areas.
And when a 911 call is forwarded from a rural community to Fairbanks, the call goes to the center’s regular phone line.
“We can’t tell in our dispatch center if, when the phone rings, whether it’s someone calling the Dillingham trooper office number to ask when they open the next day, or if it’s a 911 call from a nearby community," he said. "We can’t tell the difference, with the way the phone system is set up right now when that call lands in the dispatch center. And it’s very problematic.”
To address those issues, Roberts said, the Department of Public Safety wants to deploy a statewide 911 system. As part of that, telephone companies would have to upgrade their equipment to direct 911 calls to the proper dispatch center.
Severing ties completely between Aleknagik residents and Dillingham police means nobody will be asked to write down the trooper’s phone number during an emergency.
But it won’t address a larger issue: the lack of law enforcement in small communities like Aleknagik.
Public safety in Aleknagik, and across much of rural Alaska, falls to the state, and there’s funding for a Village Public Safety Officer. But the job has been vacant for at least three years.
Aleknagik’s city administrator, Andrews, hopes establishing a direct 911 line to the troopers will be a first step toward better public safety for the community.
“I think it’s a ripe time to take advantage of bringing our 911 system to standard in the state,” she said.
There has been some recent interest in the VPSO position, Andrews said, but the city needs to offer better housing options to attract applicants.
“We have a beautiful community, there’s interest, we just are desperate for housing," she said. "And it’s not just in Aleknagik, it’s across rural Alaska.”
Moore, the Aleknagik artist, said that getting a direct line to Alaska State Troopers is reasonable. But she wonders why the state can’t re-contract with Dillingham, and pointed out that a dispatcher in Fairbanks may not know the lay of the land in western Alaska.
“What’s wrong with using the same dispatcher who’s trained, using resources that we already have, with local community members who understand the geography of our communities and who the residents are?” she asked.
Still, she hopes officials continue to work to improve public safety in communities like hers.
“Maybe in a year, this conversation will bring it to something better," she said. "I don’t expect it to get fixed in an instant, so it’s good to know that people are working through the issue.”
She hopes that, moving forward, officials and the community focus on prevention as part of the solution.