The Frightening Reality of 911 System Failures

May 12, 2017

Todd Piett

911 System Failures: Why Do They Happen

And Who’s To Blame?

911 system failures baby girl

Unfortunately, 911 system failures are becoming all too common in the news.

The latest involves a 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 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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