Over 100,000 911 Calls Misrouted in D.C. Last Year, Investigation Shows


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Designed in the landline era, the 911 emergency response system quickly identifies the source of a call and sends help. With an increasing number of callers relying on cell phones, the 911 network is struggling to pinpoint the origin of the call and dispatch appropriate help. An investigation by WRC-TV in Washington, D.C. reports, by their very nature, mobile calls are more difficult to handle and can result in lost response time when a location is misidentified and calls are transferred.

Outdated technology can identify the nearest cell tower to a caller, but does not necessarily contact the right 911 jurisdiction. In an area like Washington, D.C. where multiple jurisdictions and states converge, a significant number of emergency calls require at least one transfer to summon the correct response unit. When questioned by WRC-TV, 911 hubs in the D.C. metro area said that approximately 100,000 calls per year that routed through their five centers had to be transferred to other jurisdictions. 

The problem is not new, with former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai commenting in 2018, “We have reason to believe that 911 misroutes are not occasional or isolated and in fact occur frequently, on occasion with deadly consequences.”

New technology, like the Next Generation 911 system, is slowly being adopted. Newer systems have incorporated mapping capabilities to better zero in on a caller and identify the correct responding agency. 

Newer technology also has the ability to capitalize on the data provided by a cell phone like GPS and WiFi that can relay more information than just the caller’s verbal report. “When we all transition onto this Next Generation 911 network, when we transfer the call, all that equivalent map data would go with the call, and that call-taker would get an instant picture as to where [a person] is,” said Steve McMurrer, 911 systems administrator for Fairfax County, Virginia, which is already using Next Generation 911.

T-Mobile and Verizon each reported that they continually strive to incorporate features that will help first responders save lives. While the carriers are working to make call identification easier, a Verizon spokesperson did note that “Verizon currently routes 911 calls based on cell site location, which reach the correct 911 call center in the vast majority of instances.”

“The bottom line is our goal is to get help there regardless of what uniform they’re wearing,” Cassandra Onley, director of Montgomery County, Maryland’s Emergency Communications Center told WRC-TV. “It’s heartbreaking because you want to be able to go through that phone and just provide that help right then and there.” 

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