This is what happens when 911 fails

Our most important lifeline isn't always there when you need it


On a June morning in Washington, William Leneweaver, the state’s E911 IT projects and operations manager, was alerted to a call. A man had been attempting to dial emergency responders, but he couldn't get through. He was left listening to a "fast busy" — a pre-recorded tone.

Eventually, he made contact by borrowing someone else's phone. The staff of the state's Vancouver call center, where the call was received, began investigating what might have prevented the call from going through. They made test calls with Sprint phones, the same provider the man had. No 911 service. They had someone in another location make more calls. Same problem.

About 100 miles north, in another county, emergency responders began getting similar reports. The Vancouver center sent a message to call centers in other counties, and out of seven that responded, five reported back: no 911 service on Sprint. Leneweaver attempted to track down Sprint employees about the outage, but couldn't reach anyone at the company. The outage, which also affected Verizon customers and callers in Oregon, ended hours later without a response.

Leneweaver was angry — couldn't Sprint alert emergency responders if there was an outage? He sent a complaint to the FCC: "Sprint provided no notification and neither the counties effected [sic] or the State E911 Coordinator's Office had adequate contact information for Sprint," he wrote.

Two weeks later, Leneweaver got in touch with the company. ("They know who I am now," he says.) A subcontractor was performing a network patch, which killed the 911 connection in parts of the state. "It definitely was planned," he says, "or it wasn't planned and they didn't bother to tell us." He hasn't heard back from the FCC on the complaint.

Wireless carriers have a strong incentive to play down any 911 outages

Wireless carriers have a strong incentive to play down any 911 outages: no company wants be the one that fails to send emergency calls. The FCC, meanwhile, receives a steady stream of complaints from consumers, according to documents obtained by The Verge through a Freedom of Information Act request, and reserves enforcement for the most egregious infractions. Years into the slow demise of the landline and ubiquity of the smartphone, it seems, calling 911 on mobile is a much riskier move than from a wired phone.

Leneweaver's team tried canvassing the counties to see if anyone was injured because of the outage. As far as they could tell, no one was; but, he says, "it only takes one to make the evening news."

Missed connections

Since January 1st, 2011, more than 400 formal consumer complaints about wireless 911 calls have been sent to the FCC. In that time, fines have been incurred just twice, both for landline phone services. They resulted from tips sent to the commission by 911 operators; none of the consumer complaints have resulted in fines. Reading them, you start following patterns: there's an accident, an emergency; 911 ends with a busy signal; occasionally, someone’s hurt. Most frequently, the issue is poor network coverage — a person in a remote area who only has access to a mobile phone can't reach emergency responders. In one, a woman from Buffalo, Kentucky, attempts to call 911 on T-Mobile about an emergency with her 17-month-old daughter. According to the complaint, multiple calls failed. When she asked T-Mobile, they couldn't tell her why.

Many are technical glitches with unclear resolutions. One person wrote, after a fire, that they called 911 fives times. "The next day I called Verizon and explained what happened. By mistake they told me they had me pinging off of their towers only; thus I could not access any other towers."

"By mistake they told me they had me pinging off of their towers only; thus I could not access any other towers."

At an August 6th speech in New Orleans, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told the audience, "I learned that in the city of Little Rock if you call 911 using your wireless phone in the corner of the 911 call center your call will not get routed to Little Rock. Instead, it will be answered by a 911 call center in North Little Rock all the way on the other side of the Arkansas River." It may not have been an isolated issue. The year before, in Ada Township, Michigan, this complaint was made from someone with AT&T:

The time of this incident is "approximate". I used my cell phone to dial 911 and I live in Michigan. My son had stabbed himself so this was a life threatening situation. I was put thru to Indianapolis, IN. It took nearly one minute for the operator to realize she could not find my address, etc., and I had the wrong 911. I was lucky enough to have another cell phone within reach and was put thru to my local 911 thankfully. I filed a complaint with AT&T a few days after and as of today, March 4th, 2013, I still route thru to Indiana when calling 911. A Sprint customer, in June, wrote, "PLACED CALL TO 911 AND CALL WAS ROUTED TO THE MILWAUKEE 911 CENTER INSTEAD OF THE SAINT FRANCIS 911 CENTER, WASTING TIME."

While many of the complaints focus on general service outages — people writing to say they wouldn't be able to call 911 in a theoretical emergency — others say they were caught off guard when they tried to dial. After an incident, some were afraid to dial as a test. Those that aren't able to call frequently report that they've asked to be relieved of their service contracts — and have been denied.

Hello, operator

The FCC files 911 consumer complaints into two categories: the immediately life-threatening, and the not immediately life-threatening. The former, the agency says, are swiftly handled. The rest take longer. Complaints are sent to the service providers, and the FCC decides whether to investigate based on the response. The complaints that are investigated aren't the pernicious ones, but the ones that willingly flout FCC rules. The last time a wireless carrier received a fine was T-Mobile, in 2007; both examples since early 2011 were incurred by wireline services, in what the commission apparently considered flagrant infractions.

"It took nearly one minute for the operator to realize she could not find my address, etc., and I had the wrong 911."

Occasionally, a problem is so extensive that inquiries are opened. Two months before Leneweaver's complaint, a 911 outage hit eight states. It was centered in Washington. There alone, 4,500 calls failed to connect during the six-hour outage. Problems like that are difficult to track: the FCC accepts anonymized information on outages, then protects that information from public disclosure, as the data is potentially harmful "to both national security and commercial competitiveness." No service providers are directly named in the inquiry announcement.

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Off the hook

The FCC is now considering new rules that may curb a related problem: location tracking. Rules that haven't been updated since 2010 require phone carriers to track a caller's location to within 50 to 300 meters, depending on the tracking technology used, when callers are outdoors. But 911 advocates have been arguing that the technology to track callers indoors is lacking. If you make a call inside, no current regulations are forcing carriers to deliver information on where you are. The FCC has said "indoor use poses unique obstacles."

Meanwhile, for purposes unrelated to public safety, other private-sector companies are zipping ahead of wireless carriers in location tracking, largely thanks to Wi-Fi accuracy. Google provides tracking data everywhere you go; more than telling you where you are at a moment, the company can chart your entire location history. Engineers there are reportedly working on tracking devices down to inches. Apple’s Find My iPhone function has proved accurate enough to track lost devices across cities. Companies like Skyhook Wireless have been built around the idea. But telecoms and emergency responders, caught off guard by the rise of the mobile, have failed to catch up to those companies, as Richard Barnes and Brian Rosen explain in a history of 911 tracking at IEEE Spectrum.

Carriers have been fighting new regulations

The new regulations could help. Within two years, under the new regulations, providers would have to track callers to within 50 meters horizontally and 3 meters vertically for 67 percent of calls. Within five years, 80 percent of calls would need to have accurate indoor location information.

Carriers have been fighting those regulations, as they have attempted several times to forcefully regulate 911 calls. The major providers have argued that the regulations would be overly difficult to put in place, and that better technology is right around the corner. They've argued, essentially, that tracking indoor calls is a solution in search of a problem. AT&T called the solution a "waste of scarce resources." FindMe911, an industry-funded group leading the charge for the regulations, has been a source of ire in FCC filings from carriers. T-Mobile wrote, "FindMe911 continues to push sensationalist headlines rather than facts as it tries to manufacture a crisis that simply does not exist." Verizon chimed in, writing, "While improvements in location estimates may be feasible in the future, experience shows that any such improvements will continue to diminish over time."

"It's a great concern to us that the carriers won't even acknowledge that it's a problem."

"It's a great concern to us that the carriers won't even acknowledge that it's a problem," FindMe911's Andrew Weinstein argues.

Dispatchers and others working in the 911 community agree with Weinstein; they say it's a continuous issue that's resulting in deaths across the country, maybe thousands. "The question is, how many lives do we have to lose?" says Danita Crombach, the president of the California chapter of NENA, the National Emergency Number Association. Crombach and a team conducted a study that determined more than half of 911 calls placed in California don't provide accurate 911 information. In San Francisco, the numbers were particularly dismal: more than 80 percent of 911 calls didn't accurately transmit information to first responders. In FCC filings, service providers have disputed the study's findings. Verizon and Sprint didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story; T-Mobile declined to comment.

This side of life

In August of last year, Vicki Miller, 911 coordinator for the city of Galesburg, Illinois, was upset with a company called Life Wireless.

When a call is put through to 911 operators, they "rebid" the call, pinging the wireless carrier for the longitude and latitude of the caller. But one day, she says, that wasn't what happened. A caller with a severe medical condition attempted to make a call with a phone from Life Wireless, a carrier that specializes in prepaid phones. He wasn't able to tell emergency responders his location. When they digitally asked for position data, it was wrong, Miller says; the number plotted inaccurately, far away from where they eventually found the caller.

Miller, frustrated, tried contacting Life Wireless to determine what the problem was. According to a complaint she filed after the conversation, and what she later recalled, a representative with the company told her Life Wireless didn't have the ability to track location information, but that they would look into the issue.

Miller wrote to the FCC: "Upon calling Life Wireless on 08/23/13 was told they do not have the ability to complete trace information for 911 and took name and number for their supervisor. For 9-1-1 purposes — we need to find out how to fix the location information as well as who do we contact in an emergency situation for trace location and customer subscriber information."

Per FCC protocol, Life Wireless was sent the complaint, and it was later determined that the issue was resolved, although Miller wasn't certain how. "I had kind of had my fill with it and I decided I'd file a complaint," she says, "but honestly nothing ever came of it."

She escalated the issue with Life Wireless. Eventually, she says, she received a note from the company. "We do not give out confidential information without a subpoena or a court order," it said. Miller didn't have either, and that was the last communication they had.

Now, a year later, she says, problems with tracking callers are a daily issue. It's difficult to pin the incidents on any specific service provider — many share towers, or "ride a different carrier's backbone" — but it keeps happening. "Everyone assumes that they know immediately where they're at and that's not always so." Although the FCC requires tracking for outdoor calls, she says, "Some carriers are much better than others."

"This is an ongoing thing on the 911 side of life."

Lead illustration by Dylan Lathrop

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