911 Awareness Means Tragedy Averted

It’s said that “lightning never strikes twice.” This is, of course, a statistical assumption and is often disputed by scientists, who note that large attractors of an electrical discharge, such as the Empire State Building in New York City, are actually struck hundreds of times per year. This is due to an outside influence skewing the law of averages.

The same is true with E911. Outside influences can mathematically skew the statistics, and, in this case, the No. 1 influencer is awareness. Take the tragic murder of Kari Hunt in Dec. 2013.

While visiting her estranged husband in a Marshall, Texas hotel room for visitation with their children, Kari was attacked and brutally stabbed dozens of times, while her 9-year-old daughter desperately tried to call 911. Her daughter couldn’t get through because the type of phone line she was using first required the caller to dial a number to reach an outside line.

As a result of the tragedy, Kari’s father, Hank, became an advocate for better, safer technology. Over months of work evangelizing Kari’s Law, which requires direct 911 dialing from multiline telephone systems where, in the past, you would have had to dial another number first to get an outside line, Hank has become educated and aware to a level well above the general public.

Fortunately, his heightened sense of awareness has likely prevented lightning from striking.

How? Hank oversees facilities maintenance at a nursing home in Texas. After Kari’s death, he checked the MLTS PBX that provided service to the staff and residents, and − sure enough − it also didn’t allow calls to 911 directly. A quick service call to his local vendor, and the problem was corrected. After learning why the change needed to be made, the local vendor tore up the bill for the service call too.

Recently, that system was upgraded to a new system, and as the resident 911 expert, Hank wanted to make sure there was direct access to 911 still. He called the local police on their administrative lines and got permission to test 911. He then picked up a phone, dialed 911 and, to his delight it, was greeted with “911, what is the address of your emergency?”

This is where most people, including telephone installers, would have said “This is just a test. Thank you very much,” and hung up. Test complete. All okay, right?

Wrong! Hank knew there may be other issues, particularly with the Automatic Location Information (ALI) that provides 911 call takers with location information.

He asked the call taker what they saw for his address and then found out something that terrified him. The call taker had no idea where he was located!

Hank queried the call taker further, and it became clear that the person was not local to the area. In fact, the call taker was not even in the United States! The person who answered his call was located at what is known as an Emergency Call Routing Center (ECRC), operated by a company called Northern 911, located in Canada.

He immediately called his telephone vendor and advised them of the issue. They made a change and told him to test again. When he did, the call went to the county 911 center and not the local police department where 911 should have been answered. Hank called again for service and was told, this time around, he would have to call the 911 folks to fix the routing issue. You can imagine his response to that, and to make a long story short, the calls are now routed correctly.

Let’s take a few steps back.

What is going on? Why does it seem like 911 is broken all of a sudden? Why are Texas calls going to Canada? Who is responsible for fixing this?

Lisa Hoffman, ENP, just recently posted a guest blog on this very issue after a 911 call on behalf of a high school student who had collapsed was routed of California to an ECRC in Canada. Dispatch was delayed by the confusion, and the student died.

So why does this happen? Certain conditions, like incorrectly provisioned VoIP systems or PBX lines, block the system from processing the calls. In that case, the 911 calls can’t be correctly routed and are sent to an ECRC.

Does this mean 911 is broken?

Fortunately, it doesn’t. The issues that arise are typically caused by the improper use of services, or by those using services designed to be failsafe backups as a primary resource.

The good news is that everyone can be an advocate, just like Hank. While we wait for more widespread adoption of E911 technologies, I urge you to become more knowledgeable and spread awareness about 911 safety. Ask your vendor to perform a 911 check up on your telephone system. Many will do this for free for their customers. When you test, make sure you not only reach 911, but also reach the right 911 center. And remember, the more awareness, the less often lightning will strike.

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