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911 failure in the Bay State

Death of Massachusetts woman whose 911 call fails to show her location halts emergency-network upgrade by Verizon and gear maker Plant Equipment.

Verizon Communications and gear maker Plant Equipment now know why a next-generation 911 system installed in 16 emergency call centers in Massachusetts recently failed several times, in one case with tragic results.

Their findings, to be released soon, will help the Massachusetts Statewide Emergency Telecommunications Board decide whether to resume a $75 million upgrade of the state's emergency call centers using gear made by Plant, one of Verizon's equipment suppliers. The upgrade was suspended two weeks ago after 911 operators complained of several instances in which calls were unaccompanied by the caller's address and call-back number.

The missing information had little, if any, impact for all but one caller, a 49-year-old Hopkinton, Mass., woman suffering a breathing problem. By the time she reached 911, early in the morning on May 19, she couldn't speak, although the line remained open. When the dead silence was broken by a few train whistles, emergency workers tried creating audio clues to her whereabouts by sending patrol cars, their sirens blaring, to neighborhoods near train tracks.

The woman's son woke up 48 minutes after his mother initially dialed 911, discovered her, then gave dispatchers the address, according to various local media reports of the incident, which were confirmed by the Hopkinton police department. It was too late to save the woman.

A subsequent investigation by Verizon, which owns the state's 911 network, and equipment provider Plant found problems in a next-generation version of Plant's Vesta phone equipment, which had been installed in 16 of the state's 264 emergency call centers, according to a Verizon spokesman.

Because of the relative paucity of failed 911 calls, the 16 public safety answering points (PSAPs) will continue using the new Plant gear, according to Paul Fahey, executive director of the MSETB.

In a statement, Verizon reminded PSAP workers of alternative "hardware, software and personnel resources to obtain any missing call information, should that occur."

"However, it's important to reiterate that the 911 system works," the operator added. "Callers can reach emergency help, and that help can be and will be provided as quickly as possible."