Next-Gen 911

No Data Exists on 911 Calls Misrouted Due to Outdated Tech

Hundreds of millions of Americans have moved from traditional land lines to relying on various forms of wireless phone services, making the 911 emergency system ever more complex, experts say.

by Steven Mayer, The Bakersfield Californian / February 20, 2015
(Tribune News Service) -- A hiker lost in the mountains of New Mexico called 911 repeatedly, but was routed seven times to non-emergency lines.

A 911 call made by an elderly woman from her home in Texas was picked up by an emergency dispatcher in Tennessee, some 700 miles away.

And an emergency call made last month from a middle school in Delano, Calif., after a young student collapsed and later died there, was routed to a 911 dispatcher in, of all places, Ontario, Canada.

Hundreds of millions of Americans have moved rapidly from traditional land lines to relying on various forms of wireless phone services, making the 911 emergency system ever more complex, experts say, and therefore more subject to misrouted calls or misidentified locations.

To make matters worse, when a 911 call is misrouted, as it was in the Delano case, no one agency appears to be responsible for investigating, even when such errors could potentially place lives at risk. And no one is cataloguing these incidents after they happen.

"There is no data on how often 911 calls must be redirected" as a result of glitches in the system, said Trey Forgety, director of government affairs for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Emergency Number Association, or NENA, a professional organization focused on 911 policy, technology, operations and education.

In the Delano case, the 911 call made by a school employee on the morning of Jan. 26 was answered by Northern911, a Canadian company that provides emergency call routing.

Not only was the call misrouted, Northern911 employees then had to call the Delano Police Department's non-emergency line to reach the department's 911 dispatchers, who then had to route the call to the Kern County Fire Department.

According to NENA Chief Executive Brian Fontes, about 45 percent of U.S. households are wireless-only.

"They have cut the land-line cord," Fontes said.

The number of wireless connections -- 336 million -- has surpassed the nation's population -- 314 million, Fontes said. So it should come as no surprise that about 80 percent of 911 calls are made from cellphones.

When everyone had land lines, or wireline phones, those phones were connected to a validated address, so when the caller dialed 911, the system knew where to route the call.

"In the wireless world, it's more complex," Forgety said. "There's no address to validate."

And for people who use cell phone carriers with Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, the location of the caller may be even more difficult to establish. Vonage is a well-known cell service that uses this Internet-based technology.

If you move to a new address or even a new city, let your cell carrier know. Otherwise your 911 call could be routed to an operator hundreds of miles away.

"The device doesn't know it has moved," Forgety said.

Why not? Google Maps can determine our location instantly. So can Starbucks.

But America's 911 system is still based on 20th century technology, Forgety said.

Most of these and other problems should go away with the changeover to Next Generation 911, an initiative aimed at updating the 911 infrastructure in the United States and Canada.

Once installed, callers could send text, video and even attachments, say a medical chart for a patient, or a photo of an injury.

But that massive transformation is years away.

One important trend in larger cities, Fontes said, is to move all 911 communication into a consolidated 911 center, rather than local 911 calls today going to the Bakersfield Police Department, the Kern County Sheriff's Office, the California Highway Patrol and other agencies.

NENA experts view the trend as positive, more efficient and more effective.

"There usually is a lot of consternation about this initially," Forgety said.

Law enforcement agencies, which receive funding for 911 services, are often reluctant to give up that funding, he said. But once they see how well consolidation works, most come around to the wisdom of the changes.

In the meantime, no local agency has said it will investigate the path of the 911 call that started in Delano, went to Canada, then to the Delano police and finally to the fire department's medical rescue.

A spokesman for the fire department said as the public-safety answering point, or PSAP, the Delano Police Department was in the best position to conduct an investigation.

But the Delano Police Department has not said whether it is taking those extra steps.

Was the original 911 call made from a cell phone or a land line? If a land line was used, was it a multi-line system, which can also be problematic for the 911 system?

How long did it take at each location before units arrived at Cecil Avenue Middle School?

Northern911 did not respond to a request for information.

Neither did the Delano Union School District.

©2015 The Bakersfield Californian (Bakersfield, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC