On Hold for 30 Minutes? T-Mobile, Dallas Working to Fix Fatal 911 Errors
By Tristan Hallman
T-Mobile engineers and city officials said Thursday they've made "significant progress" in figuring out why the Dallas 911 call center has been so bogged down by spurious calls.
City spokeswoman Sana Syed said a series of complex technological issues have helped create a debacle that has correlated with at least two deaths. What remains unclear is who shares in the blame and whether the problem is fixed.
T-Mobile has made some technological upgrades, which officials declined to elaborate on for security reasons. And city officials say they plan to make their own changes. The city will also add a dozen call takers a day until the issues are resolved.
The days ahead will be critical, Syed said.
"The genuine hope here is that it's a combination of things ... and this might do the trick and we may have figured this out," Syed said. "But it's not over yet."
The wireless carrier's engineers, who started working Wednesday at City Hall, will remain on the ground in Dallas for the next two weeks to help deal with any other issues that arise. Other than that, T-Mobile officials believe their job is done.
"We have done everything we can do to smooth out the calls," said Stacey DiNuzzo, a spokeswoman for T-Mobile. "Now, the city was pretty clear they are working on some things on their end."
Mayor Mike Rawlings said in a statement that he was "pleased that our staff and T-Mobile worked through the night" to identify problems and look for solutions. He had been critical of the company in recent days.
Engineers and executives from T-Mobile flew into the city after WFAA-TV (Channel 8) reported that a baby sitter had trouble reaching 911 when a 6-month-old boy named Brandon needed medical assistance. The sitter was left on hold for 30 minutes. Brandon later died.
When two T-Mobile executives took part in a news conference Wednesday, Dallas Voice reporter David Taffet revealed to them that his husband, Brian Cross, 52, was dying while Taffet was on hold with 911 for about 20 minutes.
At first, city officials blamed a "ghost call" problem coming from T-Mobile phones. They said the issue started in October, seemingly disappeared and then started back up again in February.
City officials had said the T-Mobile and MetroPCS phones appeared to be calling 911 multiple times, flooding the queue and leaving hundreds of callers on hold.
T-Mobile now believes it wasn't alone in the problem. Company officials claim their large market share in Dallas made it appear that T-Mobile was the lone troublemaker when they were not.
And on Thursday, T-Mobile determined the problem was actually abandoned calls, not so-called ghost calls in which phones dial 911 unbeknownst to the caller.
DiNuzzo said Thursday that it appears callers, for whatever reason, were hanging up the first time they called 911. Those hang-up calls have to be returned, creating more calls in the queue that have to be answered and returned.
But some 911 fail-safes used by T-Mobile and required by the Federal Communications Commission exacerbated the problems. When a cellphone user is on the phone with 911, no other calls can go through to that cellphone. That means the call taker spends time trying fruitlessly to reach someone who has hung up on 911 and then called back.
Making matters even worse is that 911 call takers also cannot see who is still on the line and who has hung up and whether someone has called a second time.
"That's a problem that we need to look at -- how can we help our call takers?" said Syed, the city spokeswoman. "That one piece -- think about how that could help the situation."
Syed said the city will look at several other technology upgrades, too.
T-Mobile representatives have suggested something unique in Dallas is causing a problem they don't seem to have in other cities.
Dallas does have a recent history with inadequate staffing at the 911 call center. The problems came to light after The Dallas Morning News reported on problems with the call center's staffing levels following the 2012 slaying of Deanna Cook. The 32-year-old woman's ex-husband was choking her while she was on the phone with 911, but she did not receive a timely police response because of apparent communication issues.
City officials will use overtime to add call takers for now to prevent long hold times for 911 callers. They've also got longer-term plans to add staffing by training up other city employees to help out in the future.
City Manager T.C. Broadnax, who took office in February, said in a statement that he is committed to solving the problems, whatever they may be.
"We want our citizens to know that their safety is our No. 1 priority and they can count on us when they call 911," he said.
(c)2017 The Dallas Morning News