Next-Gen 911

Dallas City Leaders, T-Mobile Vow to Find Solutions as 2nd Death is Publicly Connected to 911 'Ghost Calls'

'I was frantic, just frantic trying to get through.. I was pounding on his chest, screaming on the phone. There was nothing I could do.'

by Tristan Hallman, The Dallas Morning News / March 16, 2017
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(TNS) - David Taffet came home last week to find his husband, Brian Cross, a little disoriented.

Cross hadn't eaten yet, so Taffet made him some dinner. But after he ate, Cross lay down, went to sleep and started snoring.

Then Cross suddenly stopped snoring. The 52-year-old, whom Taffet met at a protest against the Defense of Marriage Act seven years ago, always snored.

Taffet called 911 and was disconnected. He called back and was put on hold.

"I was frantic, just frantic trying to get through," Taffet said. "I was pounding on his chest, screaming on the phone. There was nothing I could do."

Taffet said it took 20 minutes to get through to a call taker. Once he got through, Dallas Fire-Rescue paramedics arrived in no time. They took Cross to a hospital, but within about an hour, doctors told Taffet that his husband was dead.

The death is the second to be seemingly tied to what has been dubbed a "ghost call" issue in which T-Mobile customers' phones flood the city's 911 call center with phony emergency calls, forcing legitimate emergency callers to wait in line.

It's unclear whether a quicker response would've made any difference for Cross, and Taffet isn't yet sure what caused his husband's death on March 6. But on Wednesday, Taffet showed up to Dallas City Hall and demanded answers, both as a grieving widower and as a reporter for the Dallas Voice.

"I don't want to start hearing about more people dying as a result of people waiting to get through for help," Taffet said.

But Taffet and Dallas residents were mostly left in the dark Wednesday. T-Mobile executives and city leaders said they still don't know what the problem was, other than that the trouble is unique to Dallas. But they all pledged to get to the bottom of the issue that threatens the most basic public safety tenet: a prompt response to an emergency.

Mayor Mike Rawlings called situation was "very frustrating." He apologized to Taffet and said his heart was broken for anyone who has been harmed by the long wait times.

"We need immediate answers, and we need to do everything we can to fix this," Rawlings said.

T-Mobile engineers and executives flew into Dallas and got to work Wednesday after a WFAA-TV (Channel 8) report that a baby sitter for a 6-month-old boy named Brandon in Far North Dallas had trouble reaching 911 on Saturday. The sitter was reportedly on hold for more than 30 minutes.

Details surrounding Brandon's death were still murky Wednesday. Authorities including Child Protective Services are investigating, and the official cause of death won't be released until after toxicology and other physical testing, said Dr. William Rohr, the Collin County medical examiner.

Brandon's babysitter said the boy had fallen off a daybed and was barely breathing while she tried to reach 911. The woman didn't have a car and called the baby's mother.

Bridget Alex, the boy's legal guardian, rushed home and took her son to a hospital in Addison. He was transferred to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Plano, where he was pronounced dead at 7:48 p.m.

Rawlings said what was clear is that "it's unacceptable that it happened and we've got to make sure it never happens again."

While the boy's death underscored the problem with the ghost calls, city officials have known about the issues for months. In fact, City Manager T.C. Broadnax sent a memo last week to council members telling them that the city had 360 calls on hold at one point on March 6, the day Cross died.

The ghost calls originally began in October and November. The calls originate with T-Mobile devices that have already called 911, said Deputy Police Chief Jesse Reyes.

The phone numbers continued to pop up in the 911 queue even after the caller had received a response from the police or fire department. The large number of ghost calls affects all phone users, not just T-Mobile customers, because the queue is loaded up.

Taffet, for instance, has Cricket Wireless.

City leaders thought the issue was fixed in January when the calls died down. But last month, "it really let loose again," said Reyes, who oversees the communications division.

Reyes said the technical problem has been difficult to pinpoint. Not all T-Mobile phones make the calls and they don't come at predictable times. The latest surges are both unpredictable and extraordinarily taxing to the system.

"You don't know how long it's going to last," Reyes said. "We've had spikes that last 25 minutes. We've had spikes that lasted for hours."

Police officials have used overtime to beef up staffing in the 911 call center. Broadnax said he was pushing his team and T-Mobile "for a quick resolution." Until then, he is calling for volunteers among city employees who want to receive training to handle 911 dispatches to help out.

City leaders and T-Mobile executives advised 911 callers to stay on the line. If callers hang up, they lose their spot on hold and go to the back of the queue.

Reyes said some people have taken to showing up at Dallas police substations and Dallas Fire-Rescue stations, which poses problems for those departments.

David Carey, an executive vice president for T-Mobile, said T-Mobile is looking at what it can do to at least mitigate some of the problems.

"We will stay on this until it is fully resolved and everybody can rest comfortably that when they call 911 and they call for an emergency request for help, it will be addressed immediately," Carey said.

It's unclear whether the city of Dallas infrastructure has contributed to the problem. The mayor said the city needs to upgrade its technology and that it could be a variable in play. But AT&T, the city's 911 network service provider, "confirmed that it is operating as designed and is not part of the ghost call issue," Broadnax wrote last week in his memo.

Rawlings said city leaders have had "long and frank conversations" about the ghost calls with T-Mobile executives. Although Saturday saw the largest surge in ghost calls yet, the last two weeks have been particularly problematic.

City officials had been working with T-Mobile daily in recent weeks, and the company had rolled out a software update two weeks ago aimed at reducing the problem. But Rawlings said he didn't know why it took them so long to get the wireless carrier's top teams on the ground in Dallas.

"I am very disappointed with that," Rawlings said. "This should've been taken care of in my mind some weeks ago. Definitely last week. But we're looking ahead."

Staff writer Tasha Tsiaperas contributed to this report.

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