When you pick up the phone to call 911, you might assume that the call goes straight to a local dispatcher who contacts the closest police dispatcher, fire station, or hospital. But there’s actually a complex web of technology to ensure that calls get routed correctly and that help arrives as quickly as possible.
However, last year, that technology failed, leaving users in seven states in the western US without access to emergency services.
The failure had to do with a bug in the software that routes incoming calls to the appropriate dispatcher. That software, provided by telecom companies such as Verizon and CenturyLink, ensures that a 911 call is sent to a dispatcher that’s close by the caller. Once the dispatcher has gotten details about the caller’s emergency and location, he or she can then send out the appropriate emergency services.
Just before midnight on April 9, 2014, the software in a call routing center in Englewood, Colo., which serves 81 dispatch centers across seven states, failed. The Englewood center stopped forwarding calls to local dispatchers for six hours, causing more than 6,600 emergency calls to go unanswered. (In its investigation into the incident, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said that no one died as a result of the outage.)
The Englewood hub affected by the software bug was run by Intrado, a 911 communications provider. But Verizon was responsible for routing calls in northern California (part of the seven-state area affected by the outage), and the company didn’t do enough to reroute 911 calls in that area when it noticed the regular system wasn’t functioning normally, the FCC said in a report. The FCC also said that Verizon should also have alerted the 13 emergency call centers in its service area to the outage. As a result of the outage, 62 calls to 911 in northern California failed.
Verizon will pay a settlement of $3.4 million to resolve the FCC’s inquiry into the outage, and also agreed to develop better risk management practices for handling 911 calls. As phone networks are upgraded and an increasing number of people place 911 calls from cell phones, Verizon says it will work to make sure that any potential disruptions to 911 service are dealt with ahead of time. The company also pledged to recover quickly from any outages that do occur, and to notify the appropriate authorities.
Upgrades to emergency networks are known as “Next Generation 911,” and include applications such as being able to send a text message to 911 when it isn’t possible to call (such as when mobile coverage is spotty). Currently, only a few areas of the US, including Vermont, Maine, and parts of northern Texas, have call centers that are equipped to handle emergency text messages. In all other areas of the country, a text to 911 will receive an automated reply suggesting that the texter try calling instead.