VA - 911 Glitches Seem Rare, But Official Says 'One Is Too Many' : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

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--Almost three months ago, a call for help from a baby sitter in Richmond was automatically -- and incorrectly -- routed to Hanover County. That led to a half hour rescue response time, when lifesavers were stationed just three blocks away. The baby died.--SNIP--


Title: Glitches Seem to be Rare

Monday, May 1, 2000

BY MARK HOLMBERG Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

The deregulation of the telecommunications industry has brought plenty of new companies, more options and sweeter deals, but how does it affect you when you dial 911?

The bottom line: No one knows for sure.

There is no state or federal agency monitoring the 911 service to your home or business, although the State Corporation Commission does make 911 spot checks at pay phones to make sure the answering emergency dispatcher can determine the call's point of origin.

The 911 system's computerized "automatic line identifier" and "automatic number identifier" databases are crucial. That information flashes on the 911 dispatcher's computer screen, telling where you are -- in case you can't. The information also plays a key role in automatically routing your call to the emergency center in your location.

Almost three months ago, a call for help from a baby sitter in Richmond was automatically -- and incorrectly -- routed to Hanover County. That led to a half hour rescue response time, when lifesavers were stationed just three blocks away. The baby died.

The 911 system has gotten much more complex, said Harry Mitchell, spokesman for Bell Atlantic. "The 911 centers have been used to deal ing with just one company. Now there are more than 100 companies competing" for customers and providing critical 911 information.

Anna Marie Batt, resource information officer for the National Emergency Number Association, which keeps track of 911 issues, said, "The biggest problem is, there is no national standard for 911, no federal law. Every state -- and how they're set up -- is totally different."

Sandra Boclair, senior telecommunications specialist for the State Corporation Commission, asks if someone in a state agency should have the responsibility of overseeing all of 911. "That's been a session item at many 911 conferences I've attended," she said.

Insiders say Virginia's 911 system works crisply almost all the time. The new phone companies appear to be diligent in providing accurate and complete 911 data to Bell Atlantic, which serves as the system's gatekeeper.

"These new competitors realize the liability they have, and they place a lot of importance on this issue," said Larry Kubrock, SCC senior telecommunications specialist.

"The installation process is a fairly complex process," said Ken Dye, general manger with MediaOne, one of the new companies that checks its customers' 911 service for quality control. "It involves various systems interacting together. . . . Problems do occur."

Switching to a new phone company typically means your 911 line and number identifier data get an extra hand-off before they wind up in Bell Atlantic's central database in Philadelphia. Changes and corrections also go through your new company before they're handed back to Bell Atlantic.

While the transfers have reportedly been going smoothly, there have been isolated fumbles. The answer to the overarching question -- how many? -- is all but impossible to pin down.

Bell Atlantic's Mitchell says his firm's 911 center processes from 600 to 900 "change orders" a month for its several million customers in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Washington. A change order is generated any time an emergency dispatcher encounters a call with incomplete, inaccurate or nonexistent line identifier or number identifier information.

But that number of change orders, which has been relatively constant, doesn't include change orders being sent through the new phone companies, he said.

The number of phone users with improper information is further clouded by the fact that the vast majority of customers haven't dialed 911.

The National Emergency Number Association is trying to monitor entire 911 systems to get a better indication how deregulation has affected 911 service, said the association's Anna Marie Batt.

Anecdotally, 911 glitches appear to be rare, emergency communications officials say.

"One is too many," said Capt. Larry Beadles, director of emergency communications for Richmond. "We've been watching, monitoring the situation."

Beadles said that, several months ago, his dispatchers started seeing an increase in the number of calls with inaccurate or incomplete line identifier information appearing on their computer screens.

"We went from several a week to as many as 20 in one week, spread out among all the phone companies," Beadles said. "I attribute it to the fact that we have these companies still getting their feet wet on the 911 issue."

Those numbers have apparently returned to three or so a week, which has been the average over the years, Beadles said. That's a statistically tiny number given that Richmond emergency communications handles a million calls a year -- more than 19,000 a week.

Other metro 911 dispatchers have not noticed an increase in the number of inaccurate line and number identifiers.

"We're definitely keeping an eye on it," said Capt. May Ellen Fahed, commanding officer of Chesterfield County's department of emergency communications.

A much larger issue, said Charlie Udriet with Hanover's emergency communications, is the widespread use of cell phones. Wireless callers dialing 911 can be routed to the wrong emergency agency, perhaps in another county, he said. (A reliable locator system is still several years away, Batt said.)

The new phone companies are also using new phone number prefixes, Udriet said. Dispatchers can't get a general idea of caller location by looking at the first digits of the phone number, as they could previously.

"No longer can they rely on past judgment," Udriet said.

These problems, and the sitter case, have added a new protocol to Hanover's emergency communications system: Dispatchers now ask callers, "You are in Hanover County?" Udriet said.

Authorities suggested different ways to check your 911 information. Beadles in Richmond and Fahed in Chesterfield said residents can call 911 on off hours -- midnight to 7 a.m. -- to make sure their line identifier information is accurate. Hanover's Udriet suggested customers should have their phone company check their lines. A Henrico County 911 official asked residents who feel the need to check to call the county's police administrative number, 501-5000.

Beadles and Fahed made their offer knowing those calls will tax their already busy dispatchers.

But the extra work would be worth it, Beadles said. "It would give us a better picture of how big the problem may be.

"I can assure the public we'll be monitoring this situation closely," Beadles said. "The public interest is our first priority."

Call Mark Holmberg at (804) 649-6822 or e-mail him at

) 2000, Richmond Newspapers Inc.


-- (, May 01, 2000

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