Why 9-1-1 may NEVER work

After a brief hiatus spanning the past few weeks, I have had some time to reflect on the existing problems with emergency calling, and refocus on the root cause of the problem. Any regular subscriber to my blog or podcast is well aware of the tragic incident that happened on December 1, 2013 where the life of Kari René Hunt ended in a tragic incident in a Marshall Texas hotel room, when her nine-year-old daughter was unable to directly dial 9-1-1 without first dialing an access code of 9.

But getting a call out to 9-1-1 is just the beginning of the problem. Unfortunately, it is very much out of the control of the caller at this point, and the likelihood of the call being successful is at the mercy of an archaic, antiquated public switched telephone network and databases that may or may not be accurate.

From time to time, Hank Hunt (Kari’s father) will call me with a technology question about E9-1-1 as he tries to understand where technology failed and took the life of his daughter away from him. Surprisingly in the last eight months, Hank has become impressively steeped in the technology. As it turns out he was traveling through Marshall Texas this past weekend and happened to drive by the Baymont Inn and Suites at 5301 East End Boulevard South. Here is what happened on Sunday in Hank’s words:

“I stopped by this hotel Sunday, (the one Kari was murdered in) I hadn’t intended to but ‘swung” in there, got out and went in. The clerk asked if he could help and I asked him if I could dial 9-1-1 from this hotel if I rented a room there.

He didn’t know.

I explained who I was and why I was asking and he, to my amazement said, “Would you like to go to a room and find out?”.

Well, can you guess what I said?

I had him call the Marshall Police Departments non-emergency line and explain to them that we were going to test the 9-1-1 phone system and they very politely said OK. He then took me to room 111 where he opened the door for me and I entered the room.

I had to walk by the restroom, couldn’t look in there, and I found the phone. I picked up the receiver, asked him to be there when I dialed and he walked over to me and I dialed 9-1-1. Busy signal. I looked up at him, thought of my grand daughter and what she went through at this very hotel so I dialed 9-1-1 again, and then again, and then one more time.

Just like my grand daughter did.

Busy signal every time.

The only difference?

I wasn’t hearing my mother being murdered in the background.

The clerk took the receiver from me, dialed 9-9-1-1 and after 1 ring a Dispatcher answered, “9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

Precious words my grand daughter never heard but so desperately sought. [He] asked her, “What location information do you see?” and she answered,

“The only information I see is the call is coming from the La Quinta Inn.”

This hotel was La Quinta about 5 years ago. It is Baymont Inn now. So, not only has the very hotel where my daughter was murdered NOT corrected their phone system to directly call 9-1-1 they haven’t even corrected the name of the business.”

Alarm bells started going off in my head. There was still a La Quinta Inn and Suites in Marshall, and a quick search on the Internet revealed that it was just a half a mile down the road at 6015 East End Blvd. South!


So let’s think about this; Had the 9-1-1 call been successful, and the call taker was not able to confirm the address, or the hotel name, it may have been dispatched according to the ALI record as the La Quinta Inn on SE End Boulevard, and not the Baymont Inn on SE End Boulevard; A very simple, yet easily understandable mistake.

This is a very disturbing thought. Not only has the entire premise of our 9-1-1 routing architecture been invalidated by the fact that telephone numbers (ANI) no longer have to equal fixed locations on the planet, the database that we are cross referencing to (ALI) are grossly out of date, difficult to update and maintain, and just plain wrong as in the case in Marshall Texas.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one that is concerned about the inaccuracy of ALI. On July 28th the Colorado PUC issued Emergency Rules Governing Automatic Location Identification Service. In a statement located on their website they have published the opinion that they had concerns, specifically:

  • The databases used by either CenturyLink or Intrado were NOT accurate and updated.
  • That CenturyLink and Intrado have NOT coordinated and communicated with other service providers to ensure accurate location information in existing databases.
  • That the connections and other functions necessary for ALI services were NOT reliable.
  • That offering separate ALI services to certain areas of the state WOULD endanger the current pricing structure that allows for rural areas of the state to afford 9-1-1 services that might otherwise be too expensive.
  • That CenturyLink or Intrado had NOT communicated adequately with PSAPs and 9-1-1 Authorities in the state concerning the transition.
  • That all systems and connections had NOT been adequately tested and had NOT been proven to be sufficiently reliable.

The plan to let Intrado sell the ALI services direct to PSAPs has now been challenged based on the perceived inaccuracy of ALI databases.

This seemingly innocuous problem is actually a huge fracture in the core logic of our public safety communications network. If we don’t stop and correct this horrible inexactitude more lives could be lost, and people will question “How did this happen?”

Unfortunately, the answer will be “Because we let it happen.”

Related Articles:

Kari’s Law Progress: Texas to implement new 911 Law

983 days. 983 days since a little girl lost her mother after a brutal stabbing, because the motel she was staying in required her to dial a “9” before 9-1-1. Because of one single digit, Kari Hunt perished.

At Avaya, my colleagues and I have fought hard alongside Hank Hunt, Kari’s father, for 983 days in the name of Kari’s Law. The bill would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to require phone vendors and individual buildings to make sure people could connect directly with emergency services without having to press 1 or 9 first. The bill would also add two additional requirements—outgoing 911 calls would connect directly to emergency services without local interference, while also notifying onsite personnel that a 911 call was made. With the help of FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, we’ve made progress in several states and at the Federal level, promoting Kari’s Law. The state of Texas, Kari’s home state, did an exceptionally good job in fighting for this legislation. It was signed in May 2015.

On Sept. 1, 2016 the law goes into full effect in Texas, which means that businesses in Texas must make necessary provisions NOW. The best place for information is the Texas 911 page. And the Texas CSEC has produced a helpful PSA video featured on YouTube.

Did you know all Avaya systems can be programmed to be Kari’s Law compliant without upgrades? You read that correctly. In fact, many dealers will perform this service free of charge. Customers certainly do not have to purchase anything, as this law concerns access and notification. Expensive ALI management tools are not needed. We made sure this was the case, and even fought hard for a waiver process to protect a customer from having to buy a new system.

For more complex environments and VPN users, remote locations with no trunks, etc., some specific assistance will likely be needed, but customers are advised to talk with us first, as we can apply routing logic to minimize third party costs.

If a solution is required, our Avaya DevConnect SELECT PRODUCT PARTNER solutions are:

Not in Texas? We’re still working hard to make sure Kari’s Law is passed in every state, so that no child will ever face the awful outcome that Kari’s daughter lives with every day. But a change in the law isn’t necessary to do the right thing. Set the example in your state and make sure your 911 system is fully functional without the need for extra digits. Need help? We’re here to assist.


Why 50 Million People Can’t Call 911

Undoubtedly, the most common method used to contact emergency services is simply calling 911. While that will work just fine for most of us, for the 50 million citizens in the U.S. who are deaf, are deaf-blind or have a speech disability, dialing 911 on the phone is not an option.

Think about that for a second. You are deaf and experiencing a medical emergency, or witnessing one, and you can’t report it, at least not in a timely or efficient manner.

Wait—didn’t we solve this problem decades ago?
Sort of, but as it turns out, not completely. It is true that in the 1960s scientist Robert Weitbrecht proposed the use of surplus recycled Teletypewriter (TTY) machines for communications devices for the deaf. The TTYs were modified to allow the use of acoustic couplers, which made them easy to attach to any telephone receiver. The BAUDOT tones that they transmitted could be carried as audio on phone lines. And despite the machines being not very portable, for the first time a deaf person could reach out and communicate over phone lines.

That solved the problem to a degree, but a major drawback remained. Anyone wanting to use this technology could only communicate with a person who also owned a TTY device. This limited the scope of the calling party to a few select resources.

With advances in hardware technology, device transportability became less of a problem, and the 1970s and 1980s saw a significant redesign of these devices. The incorporation of modern electronics and rudimentary firmware logic allowed TTYs to become more compact and include functions such as memory and speed-dialing.

The distribution of units increased as various state entities advocated for the deaf and hard of hearing community and began to support equipment distribution programs, many of which still exist. Deaf users would be subsidized, making TTY technology affordable to a wider community base.

Despite those efforts, TTY development and advancement came to an abrupt halt, and then stagnated over the next 30 years. Meanwhile we saw incredible advances in other forms of personal communications technology used by the general public.

Why didn’t TTY technology flourish?
Even though TTY’s weren’t convenient to operate, their use and deployment was widespread, primarily as the result of requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law in 1990. TITLE I of the law mandated that any employer with 15 or more employees could not discriminate against any person who has a disability. Furthermore, TITLE III of the act required that a business of any size ensure that any individual who has a disability has equal access to all the business has to offer a customer who doesn’t have a disability.

In 2007 the smartphone was introduced, with Apple, Microsoft and Google all introducing solutions. Wireless carriers expanded with data plans and capabilities, as well as the internet connectivity that would accompany it. This was probably the main reason TTY use plummeted. Devices that could use SMS, text message, and the proprietary iMessage and FaceTime protocols have all brought ubiquitous multimedia communications to the masses. Apps have allowed services such as high-definition video relay calling to be provided to people who are deaf, are deaf blind or have speech disabilities, making the smartphone the device of choice for more and more people.

What about emergency calls?
While communicating with nearly anyone on the planet is only a click away, when it comes down to life safety issues and reaching officials at 911 centers, the legacy network once again stands in the way, blocking any possibility for direct access from these devices and the ability to use any multimedia capability. Think of it like trying to videoconference with that 1973 Harvest Gold, rotary dial wall phone that used to hang in your kitchen. Not going to happen.

The 911 network itself is the very thing that keeps public safety agencies from using these new modalities of communications—and the problem is not a new one. This same issue has suffocated the industry for decades, preventing use of intelligent, multimedia-capable, data-centric, network-connecting public safety agencies with the public they are charged with protecting.

As I have written many times in the past, the current 911 architecture in the U.S. is an antiquated, analog-based infrastructure capable of providing a single mode of communications: voice.

Even now, with carriers and public safety answering points (PSAPs) committed to rolling out Text to 911 services, it’s evident by the lack of implementations that progress is moving at a snail’s pace. In fact, according to the FCC report on PSAP Text to 911 Readiness, less than 10% of the counties have implemented the service, despite all major wireless carriers making this technology available through several mechanisms, requiring minimal effort on behalf of the PSAPs.

Are we building the wrong technology?
Next Generation 911 (NG911) systems will utilize an IP-based Emergency Services IP Network, also known as an ESInet. While it is politically correct to use the term “migrate,” in reality, the cutover to NG911 will be a flash cut, and transitional networks are there only to work out the policy and procedures required. This is why the Text to 911 solutions being deployed now are destined to be short lived. These networks, despite being new, are not deemed as “NENA i3 compliant—the adopted standard that designates the NG911 network from a functional and operational perspective.

Does that mean the existing Text to 911 network is a waste of time and money? No, I am clearly NOT saying that. What I am saying is that what we have for Text to 911 is not the end state goal of the NENA i3 NG911 network, and we need to continue to strive towards a goal that will include better accuracy. The FCC even warns on their FAQ Page about location concerns with Text to 911 today:

“Texting to 911 is different from making a voice call to 911 in this respect. When you make a voice call to 911, the call taker will typically receive your phone number and your approximate location automatically. This is called “Enhanced 911” or “E911.” However, in most cases when you text 911 from a wireless phone, the call taker will not receive this automated information. For this reason, if you send a text message to 911, it is important to give the 911 call taker an accurate address or location as quickly as possible, if you can.”

While we navigate this transitional phase of emergency communications, public safety officials everywhere remind us that the safe move continues to be: CALL IF YOU CAN — TEXT IF YOU CAN’T.

As featured on Network World

America’s 9-1-1 System: John Oliver Got it Right (Mostly)—9-1-1 Access still remains the most crucial step to emergency response

For those who may have missed HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on this past Sunday night, there was a humorous but important segment featuring America’s 9-1-1 system. I had gotten a heads up on this earlier in the week, and was anxious, albeit fully expecting this to be the average story, poorly researched and full of inaccurate assumptions around 911.

Fortunately, I could not have been more wrong. I sat back, watching the segment go on for nearly 15 minutes—each second being more amazing than the last—sprinkled with just the right amount of humor to make the important points stand out. I have to commend Mr. Oliver, and his staff, who obviously did a great deal of homework on the topic. The level of detail, as well as the subtle references, proved that quite a bit of preparation went into this piece, and they had talked to the right people in the industry. While John formulated a ton of pertinent points, accurately describing the sad state of America’s overall 9-1-1 infrastructure, he focused on cellular location accuracy and challenges leading to how we got there. But in addition to this problem, a few other critical points were missed—starting with ‘access.’

For any current 911, or Next Generation 911 system, to function properly—access into the system is first required. Only then can any end-to-end functionality and benefit for citizens be expected.

Universal access to 911 means being able to reach emergency services from any device, at any time and from anywhere. It means that 911 works both with and without an access code in Multi-Line Telephone Systems (MLTS), as I have covered in Kari’s Law many times. Currently there are House and Senate Bills working their way through the legislative process, and in these, we make the point that access to 911 must be followed immediately by on-site notification that immediately establishes situational awareness—bringing the building aware of the fact that a particular station dialed 911, and most importantly, the location of where that particular device is in the building.

We are not asking for internal folks to answer those calls—they are likely not trained to do so—we want them to be aware the calls happened. Doors may need to be unlocked, elevators may need to be held, and life-saving assistance might be rendered while waiting for public safety to arrive. Such pre-arrival coordination can speed response considerably. Despite the fact that many building operators feel they should be answering their own 911 calls, this is generally not a good practice to follow. When you dial 911 or you dial another established emergency code in the building, the call needs to reach the proper public safety answer point (PSAP) and not be intercepted by someone who is not trained to respond properly.

Less than half of U.S. States have current legislation covering this, and only a small few have any penalty for non-compliance. This may radically change if the House of Representatives takes an important next step in ensuring access that will lead to increased public safety by voting on H.R. 4167, also known as “The Kari’s Law Act of 2015.” This Bill sat in committee for only a day before a unanimous vote and 24 Republican and Democratic sponsors brought this to the House floor for a full vote. As most of my readers already know, Kari’s Law was named for “Kari Dunn who was murdered in 2013 by her estranged husband in a Marshall motel room while her 9-year-old daughter tried unsuccessfully to dial 911…because the girl did not know that the motel phone system required dialing an extra 9 to reach an outside line.” After much work in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott enacted Kari’s Law as the first Bill he signed. A similar bill is expected to be signed by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam sometime in the next month.

Federally, Kari’s Law in the bi-partisan H.R. 4167 Bill, with a companion S.2553 in the U.S. Senate, will accomplish the following:

    • Amend the Communications Act of 1934 to require phone vendors and individual buildings to ensure people can connect directly with emergency services without having to press ‘1’ or ‘9’ first.


    • Require outgoing ‘911’ calls connect directly to emergency services without local interference.


    • Ensure that on-site personnel are notified that a ‘911’ call was made.


Why does this matter? It matters because countless Americans will finally have protection, confidence and necessary peace of mind that when a 9-1-1 call is made, there will be a first responder who will have the necessary information to reach the victim without the many issues raised by you, Mr. Oliver. It will mean that America’s network of phones, an invention created by Alexander Graham Bell in March 1876, who’s first call was actually an emergency call, when he called out to Watson after spilling acid on himself, will finally serve the interests of all Americans nationwide.

So what can Americans do? Call your Congressman NOW at (202) 225-3121 to express your support for H.R. 4167. Support for this initiative has never been so important.