Abandoned calls clog 911 in Dallas and may have led to baby’s death

Source:arstechnica.com

Read Time: 4 minutes

After this article published, the City of Dallas and T-Mobile said that the problem was not with “ghost calls,” in which a phone makes repeated calls to 911 without the phone’s owner realizing it, but rather with abandoned calls that occur when a caller hangs up before reaching a 911 dispatcher. These abandoned calls, combined with technology shortcomings, apparently caused the severe 911 backlogs.

“The root issue stemmed from a variety of factors including Dallas’ aging 911 service technology, which couldn’t differentiate between calls on hold and hangups, and the way T-Mobile’s technology interacted with the system and identified callers, according to Dallas public-information director Sana Syed,” The Seattle Times reported.

Dallas officials previously said the problem was with ghost calls, and blamed T-Mobile for not fixing it.

Now, city officials are  “pursuing technology upgrades,” and adding a dozen extra call takers per day until the problem is solved, the city said in a statement. “To further assist the call takers, T-Mobile has made adjustments in its network to smooth the delivery of calls to 911,” the city said. T-Mobile has also committed to having employees in the Dallas “911 call center for the next two weeks so that they can help monitor any potential issues that may surface in real time,” the city said.

Original story, as published March 16:

On Saturday night in Dallas, Texas, a six-month-old baby boy named Brandon Alex died after the child’s babysitter was unable to reach 911 from a T-Mobile phone.

At the very same time, the Dallas 911 call center was overwhelmed by “a spike in calls” due to what has become known as “the ongoing T-Mobile ghost call issue,” a Dallas city government announcement said Tuesday. Police are reportedly investigating whether the 911 problem led to the death.

Just days before Alex’s death, a local man named Brian Cross died after it took 20 minutes for his husband, David Taffet, to reach 911. “Taffet called 911 and was disconnected. He called back and was put on hold,” The Dallas Morning News reported. Paramedics arrived quickly after Taffet finally reached a 911 dispatcher, and Cross was taken to a hospital, but died within an hour.

Mayor: “Outrageous” that T-Mobile hasn’t fixed problem

Neither death has conclusively been linked to the T-Mobile 911 problem, but no one disputes that something is broken and that T-Mobile USA is trying to fix it. “It is outrageous that T-Mobile still has not resolved the ghost-call issue that is putting Dallasites in danger by clogging our 911 system,” Mayor Mike Rawlings said Tuesday.

The Washington Post explained that “[w]hen T-Mobile customers call 911, their phones—for reasons still unknown to officials—repeatedly call 911 while they sit on hold. Those calls register as hang-ups, forcing operators to return each hang-up call to verify if there is a legitimate emergency. The manual callbacks further clog the call line.”

Dallas city officials urged residents to stay on the line if they call 911 and are put on hold. Hanging up “puts you back at the bottom of the queue and causes further delays in reaching a 911 call taker,” the city said.

A T-Mobile executive vice president yesterday pledged to “stay on this until it is fully resolved.”

Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax spoke with T-Mobile CEO John Legere on Tuesday. “Legere committed to sending his top engineers to Dallas tomorrow morning,” the city’s announcement said. “Legere stressed that they will stay on the ground until the issue is resolved. During that time, DPD [Dallas Police Department] will also continue to provide increased staffing in the 911 call center.”

Hundreds of 911 calls on hold

T-Mobile and Dallas have been trying to fix the problem since November. Company and city officials thought the problem was solved in January, but it flared up again this month. On March 6—the day of Cross’ death—there were 360 emergency calls on hold. Days later, “that record was dwarfed by a new one: 442 callers placed on hold for an average of 38 minutes,” The Washington Post article said.

Bridget Alex, the mother of Brandon Alex, blames her son’s death on the 911 problem.

“This has been going on since November. It took me to lose my son for y’all to call extra people, extra techs to be here,” she said yesterday, according to NBC 5 in Dallas. “It took me to lose my six-month-old son? Why did my child have to be the example?”

Bridget Alex had gone to a funeral on Saturday and was at her sister’s home that night “when her friend, the infant’s godmother, called in a panic to say that Brandon had fallen off a day bed and was barely breathing,” the Dallas Morning News reported.

The newspaper reports:

The babysitter called 911 three times, Alex said. She said phone records indicate the first call at 5:55 p.m. lasted 51 seconds. Her friend hung up and performed CPR then called again at 5:57 p.m. and stayed on hold for 9 minutes, Alex said. The sitter hung up to perform CPR again on the barely breathing boy. She then called a third time at 6:11 p.m. and stayed on the line for 31 minutes.

The babysitter did not have a car to drive the baby to a hospital. “Alex rushed from South Dallas back to her Far North Dallas home and drove her son to Methodist Hospital for surgery in Addison,” but he died that night, the report said.

We have asked T-Mobile for more details on what’s causing the problem and when the company expects it to be fixed. We will update this story if we get additional information.

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