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911 Busy Signal: Unacceptable

by Tobias on June 12, 2010

I recently called 911 on my iPhone 3GS and was greeted with multiple busy signals. In the back of my mind I quietly rely on the knowledge that three little numbers can get me help in an emergency. I have sadly had to do this a few times; a busy signal is absolutely unacceptable.

I was driving South on 280 in San Francisco about to merge onto 101. I could see the blinking lights of a car pulled off to the small shoulder on the right. Traffic was moving at least at 50MPH getting ready to merge into a single lane going onto 101. Once I came upon the car, I realized they were dead center in the lane. I only had a moment to act and veered into my right hand lane nearly getting into an accident.

Thankfully, no one that I’m aware of was injured.

I knew right away that I had to report the car stalled in the middle of the lane. It was situated in a very precarious spot right at 2AM on a Friday night. The car was sitting there just waiting to cause an accident.

I got my hands free for my phone on, called 911 and looked for the nearest exit to pull off the road. I couldn’t believe what I heard in my ear:

A busy signal.

I tried again. Busy.
And again. Busy.
Must be a mistake. I tried again. Busy.

An old, but sadly undated, report by KRON Channel 4 about 911 issues.

I have heard of cell phone routing issues with 911 before, but that had been years ago. I had only assumed that this had magically been fixed since last time I had looked into it. Sadly that is not the case. Not only are the systems over run and the routing is out of date, there is no good front end solution to patch the problem for the user other than calling a different number (e.g., local police).

AT&T After Hours Customer Service Number: 1-866-801-3600

I finally got through on my fifth try.

When I talked to the responder it was pretty clear no one else had reported the car yet. I’m willing to bet the driver was drunk & didn’t want to call 911 for fear of getting reported (this is merely an assumption seeing as they didn’t bother getting their car at least somewhat into the shoulder). I provided to the best of my knowledge the car description, my name, and quickly got off the phone with them. I know not to clog 911 with unneeded calls.

The Problems

I then proceeded to call AT&T to complain. I wasn’t sure where the break in the system was, but any busy signal on a 911 call is unacceptable. Of course, AT&T’s standard customer service is only open during regular business hours, so I called their after hours number. During my 20 minute “conversation” with the phone rep a cop came over to see why I was pulled off the road. I explained what had happened, provided another description of the car/location, and he said that he’d make sure that CHP was aware. I thanked him and told him I was on the phone with AT&T complaining that 911 was busy.

Yeah, CHP 911 gets really busy on late Friday nights…

The fact that this is a common occurrence just made me more angry.

The AT&T rep, after 20 minutes, finally acknowledged that the 911 service must have been busy when I called. It wasn’t AT&T’s fault it seems (yes, I was surprised that AT&T wasn’t to blame).

A friend who knows some of the inner workings of the phone networks had this to say on the issue:

“…the majority of all Bay Area 911 mobile-dialed calls go through one small dispatch center in Vallejo. If you dial from a landline you’ll get through because it will be routed to a local, staffed dispatch office who will know what your location is thanks to ANI [Automatic Number Identification – editor’s note].

“Wireless phone networks were supposed to be upgraded to provide additional data (Enhanced 911 or E911 service) so that calls could be routed to the most appropriate call center (the one that deals with problems at the caller’s physical location). There have been problems with implementation going back years.

“[Above is] a channel 4 expose from 2007. Not much has changed since then.”

The problems with the networks are quite complex. There is a site that Early pointed me to that goes into much of the details surrounding the issues with wireless 911 at 911Dispatch.com, “Dispatch Magazine On-Line“. The system is so complex they have tried to compile it into a simple graphic:

(image from 911Dispatch.com in their article “The Web of Wireless 911 & Local Technology“)

We should never get a busy signal when dialing 911. Every second counts, and we should have the technology to fix the problem by this point.

Possible Solutions?

I would like to suggest that while the technology behind the scenes has yet to catch up, we should at very least be able to help patch the problem from the user end.

My iPhone 3GS has GPS data rolling in. Apple should be able to work with AT&T to automatically look at my location, realize that I’ve gotten a busy signal by dialing 911 and automatically proceed to call the next most relevant number without the user having to interact past the point of hitting “CALL” after dialing three numbers.

To be clear, we should still promote proper use of 911 (I have heard chilling stories of people calling 911 for the worst reasons possible; ordering pizza, scared of a mouse, etc.), upgrading the systems such that routing is handled properly, actually upgrade the networks to E911, etc. In the meantime we can not sit by and let emergencies go unanswered.

Thankfully my recent situation was not, as far as I can tell, life and death for anyone, but what it had been? This isn’t a theoretical question. I have had to make “that call” before.

How a single call to 911 is handled can easily mean the difference between life and death.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bridget November 20, 2015 at 11:43 pm

I had an elderly passenger in my car (118/210 freeway) who did not respond to a question and when I looked over noticed he was slumped like he had fallen asleep. Immediately I got off the freeway, turned the corner and jumped out of my car, grabbed my iphone 6 and started dialing 911. At the same time I asked some people nearby to call 911 as well. I was asked for info and then was being put through to someplace else and got a "busy" signal. Fortunately, the other people did get a response and handed their phone to me so that I could perform CPR with assistance. The ambulance/paramedics arrived and got to work. The person has been taken off life support as his brain is impacted and he has major blockages. Surgery is not an option. What a shock to find out that 911 did not work for me. I will follow up on this.


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