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How our 911 emergency call system can fail us

CNET looks behind the scenes to see why some 911 systems shut down temporarily over the past month and how we can get out of this mess.

Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles Times

The babysitter of six-month-old Brandon Alex was frantically trying to reach 911.

But that night in March, more than 400 calls flooded the 911 center in Dallas. Two attempts went by without connecting with an operator. Once the babysitter got through to an operator, she was on hold for 31 minutes, Brandon's mother, Bridget, told a local CBS station in Dallas.

A 911 dispatcher in California answers calls and types information from an emergency call into her computers.

Don Bartletti, Los Angeles Times

After Bridget Alex rushed home, she drove her son to the emergency room. Less than two hours after the first call to 911, Brandon was dead.

It wasn't the first such fatality. Just five days earlier, 52-year-old Brian Cross died at a local hospital after his husband, David Taffet, said he was put on hold for 20 minutes after calling 911.

Initially, Dallas city officials blamed wireless operator T-Mobile. Officials believed so-called "ghost calls" from T-Mobile customers were to blame for a flood of calls to 911 operators in Dallas that clogged the system and led to longer-than-usual wait times. Ghost calls happen when a phone repeatedly dials 911 without the caller ever knowing it's happening. Each call registers as a hangup and requires operators to call back, clogging up the system and making it hard for legitimate emergency calls to get through.

Turns out, it wasn't T-Mobile. Instead, callers who were put on hold would abandon their calls and call back. Operators were required to call back the hangups, which resulted in longer wait times for callers on hold. Dallas beefed up staffing at its call centers to answer calls more quickly and is working to fix the problem.

The Dallas incidents are just more examples of the problems stemming from aging 911 systems that are struggling to keep up with the move to wireless. That's a problem when 75 percent to 80 percent of emergency calls are made from a wireless phone.

Last month, AT&T experienced a major outage, leaving more than 12,000 of its wireless customers throughout the country without access to 911 for five hours. On Friday Apple released a software fix aimed at preventing cyberattacks on call centers from a vulnerability that repeatedly dialed 911, clogging up call centers.

"There are challenges, especially when it comes to handling calls from wireless devices," said Trey Forgety, director of government affairs for NENA (National Emergency Number Association), an organization made up of public safety officials whose mission is to foster the technological advancement, availability and implementation of the 911 system in the US.

What are those challenges and what should consumers expect? We'll highlight the two biggest ones and look at how the public safety community is moving forward.

Where are you?

Because wireless phones are mobile, they're not associated with a fixed address like a landline. This means that when someone makes a 911 call on a mobile phone, the device must transmit information about its location to the call center.

This is enabled by using a combination of GPS technology and cell tower information to locate the caller. It works fairly well for calls made outdoors, but there are still issues locating people indoors. Also, this system doesn't transmit addresses but rather coordinates, which isn't as useful to first responders.

Sometimes the best a mobile phone can provide is the location of the nearest cell tower, which may not be specific enough for a 911 dispatcher to use for directing a responder.

There's no national registry or database that shows how well the 911 system performs with respect to wireless calls. An analysis of call data from seven states conducted by USA Today for a report in 2015 shows that as few as 10 percent of dispatchers were able to get a fix on a caller's location.

uber-app-gettyimages-454509982.jpg

Apps like Uber use a combination of wireless technologies to help pinpoint your location. Wireless carriers are trying to incorporate these same technologies into the 911 emergency call system.

Adam Berry, Getty Images

Why is it so difficult for your wireless carrier and first responders to find you?

That's because when the wireless industry first set up the system, none of the tools available today -- Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, for instance -- were around.

In 2015, the FCC passed rules requiring wireless carriers to use newer wireless technologies to help improve location accuracy, particularly indoors. And wireless companies are expected to reach the first set of benchmarks this month. Specifically, they're required to be able to locate callers within 50 meters of where they called or to provide an address for a caller for 40 percent of all wireless 911 calls. By 2021, the benchmark is to be able to accurately locate callers 80 percent of the time.

Matt Gerst, assistant vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA, the wireless industry's trade group, said the industry is well on its way to meeting these goals. In addition, the industry is working to compile a database that wireless carriers can use to help deliver known addresses of wireless reference points like Wi-Fi hotspots and routers to 911 call takers and dispatchers.

"Being able to provide an address with a floor, suite or apartment number is very important to enhancing our ability to respond to indoor wireless 911 calls," Gerst said.

Inconsistency abound

Each state and locality is responsible for funding and running their own 911 call centers. This has resulted in some local governments investing in new technology while others have lagged.

"There's a great deal of variability in terms of capability in 911 call centers," Forgety said.

Some of this is a result of funding issues. Who pays for 911 service? You do. Everyone who has phone service is billed for 911 services. This was originally tied to the old wireline phone bills and interstate calling.

What's more, some states have diverted funds collected to other things. A report issued by the FCC in December shows that eight states use some or most of the 911 money for "unrelated purposes," which amounts to more than $220 million of the $2.6 billion collected.

Last month, FCC commissioner Michael O'Rielly urged regulators to do something about states siphoning off the 911 funds.

"I suggest that the appropriate policymakers must implement new measures to end this practice once and for all," O'Rielly said in a blog post. "This may require uncomfortable conversations with states or taking forceful actions ... but the current mechanism of shame and hope isn't working."

Leveling the playing field

NENA's Forgety said he'd also like to see the federal government kick in some money to help 911 call centers upgrade to next-generation service.

Fogerty said a possible infrastructure bill from President Donald Trump could inject federal dollars into the system. The NG911 NOW Coalition, made up of public safety leaders and the telecommunications industry, is "working to address the funding, technical, policy and legislative challenges that have stalled more rapid NG911 implementation."

Senators Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, and Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, have also drafted legislation to promote the transition to next-generation 911.

"I believe we have a duty to give our brave first responders the tools they need to do their jobs as safely and effectively as possible," Klobuchar said in a statement.

NENA also believes the new technology would have been able to prevent AT&T's outage through intelligent routing of calls.

But a move toward internet-based technologies may not be a complete panacea. In fact, it could introduce problems like new vulnerabilities, former FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said after a major 911 outage in 2014.

"The kind of software glitch we had here is just an early demonstration case," she said. "Before a worse one results -- or a malicious one, as part of a cyberattack -- we need to get our house in order."

One thing is certain: 911 is a number every one of us knows by heart. We hope when we need to call it, we'll be able to get help. So regardless of how we do it, the issues with 911 need to be fixed.

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