The Frightening Reality of 911 System Failures

Picture of Todd Piett By Todd Piett


911-cell-callUpdated on 7/20/2018 - Why do 911 system failures happen and who's to blame? Unfortunately, they are becoming all too common in the news. While in some cases the failure was due to human error, a common theme is noticeable across many incidents: the limited ability to locate mobile 9-1-1 callers.

Recent 911 system failure Incidents

The most recent incident involved the death of a 17 year old boy in Ohio that suffocated in his minivan when emergency responders couldn't find him. The teen was on his way to a tennis match, and is believed to have been putting equipment in the back of the van when he was pinned under a seat. He used voice commands to dial 911, and tried to tell the dispatcher his location and that he was suffocating. The operator couldn't understand or hear him, and lacked the proper information to find the van. Police searched the school premises, but didn't see the boy inside the van.

This is a tragic incident that brought up key questions about the city's 911 system and police response. The situation could have been prevented or helped by proper 911 location services or by providing dispatchers with a comprehensive safety profile. With this capability, the dispatchers would be able to see emergency contacts, information about vehicle or home, medical data, and any other information residents see fit to share. 

In an interview about the incident with Fox19 News, Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel said that he believes a safety profile could have helped. He pointed out that when a cellphone user has a safety profile, their emergency contact information is passed along to deputies in the field every time a 911 call is made from that phone. "That could have possibly been something that helped out here where if that information was in that cellphone number, that the 911 operators could have called a parent to find out 'Hey we got this call from this cellphone, do you know what's going on with that individual'," Monzel said.

UPDATE : The City of Cincinnati recently announced that it has launched Smart911.

This just one of several strategies that 911 and emergency response teams could use to address the flaws in the 911 response system. Another incident involved a 911 delivery outage. There was one lawsuit against T-Mobile for failing to deliver 911 calls which contributed to the death of a 6-month old in Dallas. Previous outages have hit other components of the emergency communications infrastructure. From a public safety perspective, it strikes me that we often think about components and not a holistic system.

911 system failures baby girl

911 systems need to work 100% of the time.

We all know this is an unrealistic expectation, but it is none-the-less the expectation of the citizens served. From the perspective of the person facing an emergency, the system is not just the 911 routing network, but the originating network, the dispatch equipment, the radios, the proper handling of the call by trained personnel, and even the responders. It is truly an integrated system. We too often look at single components in a system. Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) is a critical enhancement to the 911 system, but only handles the call routing and delivery. If a citizen uses an IP-connected device and the device does not connect to the 911 network, sends a poor location, or the call quality is so poor that the call is intelligible, the system has failed. Our multi-billion dollar investment in FirstNet and NG9-1-1 would not have solved the issue in Dallas.

911 system failures dated technology Emergency responders arrived too late to save Shanell Anderson from drowning in her SUV.

Thinking back to the tragic death of Shanell Anderson in Atlanta which was the result of flaws in 911 caller location technologies, processes and GIS mapping, we see a holistic system failure. There were a number of points over the course of the tragedy where a holistic systematic view could have provided a safety net to the failing of any single component, whether through training, better policies, or technology.

I don’t mean to infer that T-Mobile’s failure to deliver 911 calls or the “ghost-dialing” problem in Dallas was somehow the fault of 911 system administrator. In fact, I think it is quite the opposite. As we look at expanding the types of devices that can contact 911, and the trusted systems that integrate into the emergency response process, vendors need to be held accountable. As public safety practitioners, we can identify weak links in the chain. From the FCC (who can regulate the network access components) to the FTC (who can regulate consumer claims made by vendors), oversight authorities exist to help ensure public safety. Public Safety can, and should, take a leading role in sounding the alarm to make sure those authorities are made aware of the systemic risks and not just look at our own small piece of the puzzle.

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Written by Todd Piett

Todd Piett joined Rave in 2005 and today runs the global organization that has its technology deployed at thousands of colleges, universities, businesses and communities. Prior to joining Rave, Todd was responsible for launching new products for Unica Corporation where he helped drive their successful IPO. Previously, Todd was VP of Product and Marketing for iBelong, a portal provider targeting affinity organizations and a Program Manager at Dell Computer where he launched Dell’s branded ISP. Todd graduated with honors from the United States Military Academy at West Point and holds an MBA from Harvard Business School. After graduation from West Point he served 7 years in the US Army as an aviation officer.


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