Dallas offers cautionary tale as it moves to fix 911 woes
Dallas has been experiencing disruptions in its 911 service that began in October and at one point last week resulted in 360 calls being placed on hold
By David Warren
DALLAS — Dallas has been experiencing disruptions in its 911 service that began in October and at one point last week resulted in 360 calls being placed on hold. More dispatchers have been assigned to field 911 calls and technological glitches have been fixed, which should smooth operations, a city spokeswoman said Friday.
But the problems plaguing Dallas can be found with other 911 systems that rely on increasingly obsolete networks that are incompatible with new technologies and protocols.
Here are some of the issues at play:
WHAT HAPPENED IN DALLAS?
It was initially believed that the city's 911 center was bedeviled by T-Mobile phones making "ghost calls," which are automatically generated by a phone unbeknownst to its owner. Spikes in calls would periodically overwhelm 911 dispatchers. City Manager T.C. Broadnax said it appeared the problem was fixed in January, but it later returned and may have contributed to a delayed response to emergency situations in which two people recently died in separate incidents, including a 6-month-old boy whose baby sitter was on hold for a half-hour after the child fell from a bed.
On Thursday, the city instead blamed the problem on abandoned calls. Callers would hang up after dialing 911 and dispatchers were then obligated to return the call to determine if there was an emergency. But that created a long backlog of calls.
On Friday, Deputy Police Chief Jesse Reyes said the call center received 5,352 calls between 3 and 11 p.m. on March 11, a period that might average about 2,800 calls. It was during that period that a Bridget Alex and her baby sitter were unable to reach a 911 operator after an accident involving Alex's 6-month-old son. Brandon Alex later died of his injury. On March 6, the night David Taffet said he couldn't reach 911 operators for help after husband Brian Cross collapsed at their home, the call center received 4,802 calls between 3 and 11 p.m. Reyes provided no average number for such a weeknight, but said it would have been less than the 2,800 calls seen on a weekend evening.
Reyes said no totals for the number of abandoned calls during those periods were available. He said 911 operators answer 90 percent of their calls within 10 seconds, the industry standard. He said, however, there is no industry standard for getting back to calls placed on hold during high volumes, and he has no totals of how many calls on the evenings of March 6 and March 11 were abandoned.
WHAT IS THE FIX?
More dispatchers are now fielding calls and city spokeswoman Sana Syed said T-Mobile has made modifications to its network. For example, T-Mobile engineers have disabled a function where if a person calls 911 and doesn't make contact with a dispatcher, then the phone will automatically generate a follow-up call, she said. Disabling that function will help reduce the backlog of calls. Also complicating matters were phones that would not accept any incoming calls if a person was on the line with 911. That means a dispatcher would be unable to return a call if a person was making another attempt to reach 911.
Syed said an ongoing complication is that come components of the city's 911 network are outdated and need to be replaced.
A BIGGER PROBLEM
Some of the challenges Dallas is facing are playing out nationally. Landline systems are largely incompatible with next generation 911 systems, which use mapping services to locate callers and can support text, video and other forms of communication.
"We have got to make the transition quickly because the longer we stay in this transitional state with one foot in the landline world and one foot in the IP, or internet, world the more vulnerable we're going to be," said Trey Forgety, director of government affairs for the National Emergency Number Association.
He said a new national perspective must take root. In the past, not much could be done to impede 911 service. But now ransomware, "denial of service" attacks and other cyber threats are undermining 911 operations. Forgety mentioned a case investigated by Phoenix police in which a teenager tweeted a link that contained coding that caused iPhones to repeatedly dial 911. Retweets and reposts by others would automatically generate more calls, inundating 911 centers in many parts of the country.
HOW OFTEN IS 911 SERVICE DISRUPTED?
The Federal Communications Commission doesn't release tallies on how often 911 service is interrupted. But large-scale disruptions occur with some regularity. Just last week, AT&T cellphone customers were unable to call 911 in several states. Law enforcement and government agencies in Texas, Florida, Tennessee and other states reported the problem and provided alternate numbers for people to call during emergencies.
In August 2014, 911 connections for millions of T-Mobile customers were interrupted. The FCC said it stemmed from a software upgrade that interfered with call routing and a $17.5 million fine later was imposed.
That same year, service was lost for some 11 million people in seven states because of what the FCC described as a software coding error by a company that provides 911 communications services.