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!

PHOTO CREDIT: GOOGLE MAPS

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:

Solving India’s 911 Problem: Real Solution, or Knee-Jerk Reaction?

This article originally appeared on Avaya’s NG911 blog.

Emergency services in India have evolved over the years. But instead of consolidating access numbers, the decision was made to implement different numbers for everything. At the 9-1-1 Goes to Washington event in March 2014, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai referred to this problem during his address to the public safety community:

“We in the United States often take our 911 system for granted. But my recent trip to India reminded me how fortunate we are. In India, there isn’t a single number that people can call for help. There’s one number to reach the police, another for the fire department, and yet another if you need an ambulance. There are even different numbers for senior citizens, women, and children to use. I learned that many Indian households have a long list of numbers stuck on their walls and refrigerator doors to remind them which number to call for which emergency. All of this leads to needless confusion and delayed response times.”

In an effort to solve the confusion, India’s Women & Child Development Minister, Maneka Gandhi, developed a proposal that would allow people to connect to emergency services by ‘pressing and holding the 9 button‘ on any cell phone. The idea was given the go-ahead in a recent meeting of representatives from the country’s service providers, as well as mobile phone manufacturers.

Apps were discussed, but dismissed, as they have not been effective elsewhere in the world. For an app to be useful, people need to install the app and keep it up to date. Unfortunately, most people don’t plan that far ahead.

Additionally, pressing ‘9’ on an older analog cell phone could effectively be implemented at the carrier level without excluding analog cellular phones, which remain prevalent across India.

While I have to commend the essential simplicity of this idea, it does raise a few concerns that may not have been completely vetted, and may actually have some unintended negative impact:

  • How long is a ‘long press’ exactly?
  • Can it be canceled?
  • What will multiple rapid presses do?
  • Pocket dialing is a huge problem. How many misdial events will this potentially generate, having a negative impact on public safety resources, which are already running paper thin?

Without a study being done on the misdial call load on PSAPs alone (something that can be tracked and measured) it appears this solution may be a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to a problem, and has the possibility of making the situation worse by impacting public safety.

Another point to consider is the potential confusion this may cause to citizens. Clearly, 911, 112, and 999 are well-known emergency access numbers globally. They all have been promoting the concept of  “anywhere, anytime, and on any device” for more than a decade.

While this addresses mobile phones, it is likely the ‘long press’ of 9 on telephone devices that are NOT cell phones could be difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce or replicate. This would then eliminate the universality of access to emergency services we currently enjoy today.

After two years of fighting a policy battle in the US, we are just beginning to win the “No 9 Needed” battle with MLTS PBX systems. This initiative, know best under the name ‘Kari’s Law,’  requires MLTS systems to recognize just the digits 911, 112 and 999 as emergency numbers; effectively eliminating the “9” normally needed to get an outside line. The popular tagline for Kari’s law is “No 9 Needed”, but now we need to modify this message to be “Except in India, where you just press 9”? Hank Hunt may have a comment or two on that.

The IETF states that the numbers for emergency services globally should be 911, and 112. In the UK, 999 has been locally ingrained, and although attempts and suggestions have been made over the years to change it, history will live on, and the best that we will see is support for 911 and 112 in the local PSTN, and 999 will continue to live on in perpetuity.

Clearly the problem will continue, but it is good that people are looking to solve the issues. I would highly recommend the Ministers of India talk to the experts at NENA EENA and APCO International before potentially life-changing decisions like this are made without completely vetting the technical and social impact of the decision.

Avaya Chief Public Safety Architect Talks Kari’s Law, Life-Saving Policies

When Hank Hunt’s nine-year-old granddaughter saw her mother being stabbed in a Texas hotel room, she did exactly what she learned to do in the case of an emergency: she dialed 9-1-1. When her call didn’t go through, she dialed again … and again … and again. Four times, she dialed 9-1-1, and four times, her call went nowhere.

Hunt’s granddaughter didn’t know – and why should she? – that the phone system in the hotel was an MLTS/PBX, a multiline system that often requires users to first dial a number to reach an outside line.

Since the murder of Hank Hunt’s daughter, named Kari, Avaya Chief Public Safety Architect Mark Fletcher, ENP has made 9-1-1 public safety awareness and progress his mission.

“We know from the coroner’s report that it was the last stab wound that killed Kari,” Fletcher said solemnly. “If Kari’s daughter had been able to directly dial and reach 9-1-1, Kari may be alive today. The gravity of that led me to an epiphany. This needs to change.”

Fletcher is an advocate for Kari’s Law, U.S. legislation that requires direct 9-1-1 dialing from multiline telephone systems, which are commonly found in schools, office buildings and, like in Kari’s case, hotels. At this year’s annual Public Safety conference, National Emergency Number Association President Christy Williams honored Fletcher with the President’s Award for his continuing advocacy.

Until last week, specific language regarding Kari’s Law was only seen at the state level – recently, it was approved by the likes of Illinois, Maryland, Texas and Pennsylvania. It was just introduced at the federal level on Dec. 3 by Representative Louie Gohmert, who filed a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives called The Kari’s Law Act of 2015, which requires anyone who dials 9-1-1 to be able to directly reach emergency personnel and requires the enablement of onsite notification.

On the heels of this milestone, Fletcher sat down with Avaya Connected for an exclusive Q&A about this life-saving legislation.

How have you and Avaya been involved with Kari’s Law?

I saw the initial news of Kari’s murder in Dec. 2013, and when I read the story, my heart sank as I realized what had happened and why. It was clearly an avoidable programming issue, and when I saw Hank’s Change.org petition, I thought I’d help Hank collect more signatures. I recorded a podcast for the Avaya Podcast Network (APN), telling the tragic tale. I also went a step further and got the idea to write an open letter to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler. I copied all four Commissioners and tweeted to Commissioners @AjitPaiFCC and @JRosenworcel. That evening, I was shocked to see Commissioner Pai favorite the tweet.

A few days later, I received a phone call from Commissioner Pai’s secretary. “He’d like to meet with you to talk about it.” I went to Washington, D.C. expecting to get 5 minutes. That day, we spoke for nearly an hour, and I knew I had his interest and concern.

From there, it’s taken off. We just hit more than half a million signatures on the Change.org petition, and, as you know, we have several statewide legislation initiatives passed and now an active bill filed in Congress. Avaya has given me the pulpit to go out there and educate our customers.  We can change the conversation about 9-1-1 and easily correct the problem, and, for that, I’m very grateful.

What do you mean when you say that Kari’s Law is “changing the conversation?”

There are 240 to 300 million 9-1-1 calls annually, and, based on personal experience, I’d say there’s a lack of direct 9-1-1 dialing access in at least 60 percent of those originating from MLTS/PBX systems. Improving these systems to have direct access and onsite notification isn’t difficult, and it isn’t expensive. Most systems have this ability already built in, and it just needs to be turned on. Kari’s Law is giving us a platform to say: this is something that can − and needs to − be fixed.

Then why would there be resistance?

It’s not resistance so much as a lack of awareness. When Commissioner Pai reached out to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, which represents nine of the top ten hotel chains, they were shocked. They convened an internal task force to address access to 9-1-1 and, now, they have committed to nearly 100 percent implementation of 9-1-1 direct dial access for the owned and managed properties of 10 of the association’s largest member chains, just because they were made aware of the problem. There was no huge financial impact to address this.

There’s a tragic misconception that this is costly – in time or in money. In my experience, it takes 3 minutes to fix the access problem, and 1 minute to configure on-site notification. In nearly all cases, it’s just the flip of a switch or a keyboard click, and can often be done remotely.

In terms of cost, I’ve spoken with four major PBX vendors/distributors/installers that said they’d be happy to check their maintenance customers free of charge to make sure direct 9-1-1 is turned on and, if it’s not, turn it on for free. Three of the four, CSDNet, CSG and DJJ Technologies, all said yes, of course, they’d check and enable their customers. The fourth one, TelServe in Connecticut, said, “I don’t care if it’s a customer or not. We’ll check their systems regardless.” That is a powerful statement and carries a lot of weight.

The Kari’s Law Act of 2015 would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to have phones configured to directly initiate a call to 9-1-1 without dialing any additional digit, code, prefix or post-fix and to require onsite notification for facilities with multi-line phone systems. What does The Kari’s Law Act of 2015 mean for the future of 9-1-1 legislation?

It justifies and promulgates it, but we still have work to do. This is just the Congressional bill. We need to get a Senate bill sponsored, and it needs to go through both houses and to the President’s desk before it is a law. While we will continue to push toward that federal law, in the meantime, we’ll be knocking on state doors to create safer and smarter 9-1-1 legislation for schools, businesses and anyone who uses an MLTS/PBX system.

What can a blog reader do to advocate for safer 9-1-1 technology?

Awareness and action. Don’t assume your office’s 9-1-1 system just works. Take proper precautions and have your maintenance vendor check.

Hank Hunt told us, “Mark Fletcher has been very instrumental in making Kari’s Law a reality. His knowledge of the telecommunications industries is without match and, without his and Avaya’s support, Kari’s Law wouldn’t have been nearly as well received.” If passed, the law would be, quite literally, a life-saver. Congratulations on the progress!

Thank you!

For continued public safety information, be sure to follow Fletcher on Avaya Connected.

Buyer Beware! The Hidden Dangers of WiFi-Enabled 911

The term ‘Caveat Emptor’ is a Latin phrase meaning, “let the buyer beware.” The term is primarily used in real estate transactions, but it’s applicable in any transaction. Essentially, it proclaims that the buyer must perform their due diligence when purchasing an item or service. That’s particularly true if you’re relying on Internet-based phone service for 911.

For any E911 service you subscribe too, reading the fine print may save your life. Don’t blindly click through the EULA.

So what the heck is a EULA? We have all see those annoying End User License Agreements that come with pretty much any software or service you use today. With more and more applications being delivered via the cloud and over the Internet, those EULAs may change over time, and virtually no one reads them completely.

With over-the-top, Internet-based Voice Over IP (VoIP) communications, the E911 services provided by these carriers may have some additional baggage you may not be aware of. If you read the EULA, those limitations are clearly spelled out, and the user has explicitly agreed to them by clicking OK on some form.

Case in point: a large cable provider promotes their online Internet service as a total replacement for cellular service. Utilizing their network of a ‘million WiFi hotspots,” this provider claims that you can drop your cellular service and use your smartphone on their network for just a fraction of what your current cell provider charges.

In fact, in several of their TV commercials, they openly state that E911 works, even when you don’t have a WiFi connection. But if you read their disclaimer outlining the specifics of their policy on E911, they clearly state in bold print:

WE STRONGLY RECOMMEND THAT YOU TELL OTHERS IN YOUR HOUSEHOLD, YOUR GUESTS, AND OTHER THIRD PARTIES WHO MAY USE THE SERVICE OF THESE LIMITATIONS. YOU SHOULD MAINTAIN AN ALTERNATIVE MEANS OF CALLING EMERGENCY SERVICES, AS THE SERVICE IS NOT MEANT TO BE A PRIMARY LINE REPLACEMENT SERVICE.

While I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t play one on TV, this seems to be an attempt to shift the liability for E911 to the consumer. What about the nice lady in the commercial? She told people exactly the opposite, and not to worry because “E911 always works.” I’m very concerned that the unsuspecting public will be led to believe they have an E911 safety net in place on their device, when in fact, depending on many contributing factors, they very well may not.

Cable providers are able to make this claim by relying on a provision in federal law that allows a mobile device to connect to the 911 network without a traditional mobile connection. This provision has been controversial, and there’s been talk of updating it, or possibly closing it entirely.

Although these devices work today, they carry with them a number of troubling issues:

  • They don’t provide the caller’s location
  • The emergency dispatcher can’t call them back”

Unless you work in public safety, these are facts you probably didn’t know. How many others are in a similar position, and how many people have switched to WiFi-only service on their smartphones, and are walking around with a device that may not work in the future for E911?

I really don’t want my epitaph to read ‘He Clicked OK, But He Never Read the EULA.’