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.
Awareness, has likely prevented lightning from striking, again.
How you ask? 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!
Wait a second . . . just who IS this, and where are you?
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.
What is going on here? We need to 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? In fact, it appears that this is not an isolated incident. It may actually be a systemic problem.
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 E911 is broken?
Fortunately for all of us, no it doesn’t. The issues that arise causing this ECRC routing to happen are typically due to the improper use of services, or caused by those using these services, originally designed to be failsafe backups, as a primary resource for calls, making the wrong assumption that they should just get the call to the ECRC, and let them sort it all out. Not a good idea, and it is fraught with delays and, yes, an additional expense of hundreds of dollars.
The good news is that everyone can be an advocate to fix this, just like Hank. While we wait for more widespread adoption of E911 and NG911 technologies, I urge you to become more knowledgeable and spread awareness about 9-1-1 safety in your organization. Ask your vendor to perform a 9-1-1 check up on your telephone system. Many will do this for free for their customers. Also, when you test, make sure that you schedule ahead of time with the emergency center, and make sure that when you call, you not only reach 911, but also reach theright 911 center. Ultimately, the more awareness we raise, the less often lightning will strike for this particular reason.
Mark J. Fletcher, ENP is the Chief Architect for Worldwide Public Safety Solutions at Avaya. As a seasoned professional with nearly 30 years of service, he provides the strategic roadmap and direction of Next Generation Emergency Services in both the Enterprise and Government portfolios at Avaya. In 2014, Fletcher was made a member of the NENA Institute Board in the US, and co-chair of the EENA NG112 Committee in the EU, where he provides insight to State and Federal legislators globally driving forward both innovation and compliance.