MI - Slammed! 911 Dispatchers Put on Hold

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Slammed! 911 dispatchers put on hold

Friday, June 9, 2000

By John Tunison The Grand Rapids Press

OTTAWA COUNTY -- At first, Ottawa County 911 dispatchers didn't know what went wrong with their outgoing phone lines.

All of them just stopped working the morning of May 11.

Several minutes later, they learned they were the victims of "slamming." The problem shut down outgoing phone lines for six hours and sent dispatchers scrambling for cell phones to make calls.

"It cost a lot of delay and frustration," said Stephen Todd, director of the Ottawa County Central Dispatch Authority.

Slamming occurs when a phone company changes a customer's carrier without permission. The switching is a violation of Michigan Public Service Commission rules.

Although thousands of Michigan phone customers have been slammed in recent years, few thought it could happen to a public agency such as Ottawa County Central Dispatch.

"It seems incredible they can do that to lines that come into an emergency operations center," said Holland City Manager Soren Wolff, who sits on the Central Dispatch Authority board. "It's a ludicrous situation if that, in fact, could shut us down."

Usually slamming doesn't affect a customer's ability to make calls, but in this case, Todd said the switch apparently was incompatible with AT&T's service on the incoming lines.

Todd said he later learned from Ameritech computer records that WorldCom, the nation's second largest long-distance carrier, had temporary control of the outgoing lines until Central Dispatch could get them switched back to AT&T about six hours later.

"We know that's who grabbed them," he said.

The switching caused no major safety problems because dispatchers were able to use personal cell phones to make outgoing calls. Incoming calls from people dialing 911 were not affected, he said.

Several minutes into the shutdown, dispatchers also learned they could use AT&T's "dial-around" number, 10-10-280, to get an outside long-distance line.

But Todd and other Central Dispatch Authority board members say the problem could have been more serious, especially since cell phones sometimes don't function very well from inside the thick-walled dispatch center.

Dispatchers need the center's 15 outgoing lines to make various calls, such as to Aeromed helicopter service, the center's 911 phone vendor near Detroit, the poison control center and CSX Railroad.

"There are so many long-distance calls we make," he said.

Data showed the dispatch center made 43,000 outgoing calls in the first five months of 2000.

Wolff said he worried about the possibility that a phone shutdown could hamper response times of emergency vehicles and leave the Central Dispatch Authority liable.

"If something happens, (the victim) is going to come after us, not the phone company," he said.

Clair Hassett, a spokeswoman for WorldCom in Washington D.C., said she didn't have any information about the problem in Ottawa County.

She questioned whether the trouble was the result of intentional slamming or simply an innocent mistake. Sometimes lines are switched to a different carrier because of crossed wires or because an underground fiber was cut in the road, Hassett said. In other cases, workers for WorldCom, formerly known as MCI WorldCom, have mistakenly entered the wrong data into computers and caused service to be switched.

"There are opportunities for error," she said.

WorldCom recently agreed to pay the federal government $3.5 million in a settlement over complaints of illegal slamming. Hassett said WorldCom is taking a tough stance on the issue.

"We have a very serious policy against slamming in place," she said. "We have already seen a lot of improvement in our numbers."

The WorldCom settlement represents the highest slamming payment ever collected by the agency.

Bernard J. Ebbers, WorldCom's chief executive officer and president, said the incidents highlighted by the FCC were perpetrated by a few sales employees who were terminated.

"Our zero tolerance policy for slamming is very real, and we will take whatever steps necessary to prevent slamming from occurring," Ebbers said.

The company is making a voluntary payment of $3.5 million, which will go to the Treasury.

Officials with 911 dispatch centers in Kent and Allegan counties said they had not experienced any problems with slamming.



-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), June 09, 2000

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