Dallas 911 system remains a gamble for callers
The 911 center is so severely understaffed that the city has spent more than $400,000 in overtime in recent months just to get the phones answered
By Sarah Mervosh, Terri Langford and Tristan Hallman
Dallas Morning News
DALLAS — Two frantic callers dialed 911 that warm spring evening.
The calls came from the same Dallas address, the very same apartment, just hours apart.
One ended with a rescue. The other ended in a baby’s death.
The two calls illustrate a problem that played out across the city for months last fall and into this year. Thousands of people a day called 911 expecting a swift answer. Only some of them got it.
The latest crisis has highlighted longstanding and fundamental shortcomings in the city’s emergency call system — and they are still not fixed, an investigation by The Dallas Morning News found.
The 911 center is so severely understaffed that the city has spent more than $400,000 in overtime in recent months just to get the phones answered. Its technology is outdated. Its management has been poor.
These lapses left the 911 system unable to cope when its operations clashed with the technology at a single cellphone company, T-Mobile and its subsidiary MetroPCS. That company gave 911 operators just a short time to answer before it activated a backup system that inadvertently overwhelmed the emergency-call center, our investigation found.
This dangerous situation festered for months. But the city did little to warn the public until the system teetered on the verge of collapse in March.
The city initially blamed T-Mobile for the malfunction. The company has acknowledged adjusting its system. But it said in a statement that it has not had a similar problem with the 4,600 emergency call centers it works with across the country.
City officials say 911 is now safe. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said the city has been intensely focused on improving service. It has bolstered its equipment, held a job fair and is working to hire more call takers. Supervisors celebrate short-term successes with food, such as a free lunch or chocolate fondue fountain. And the city manager now alerts council members by phone, text and email when a serious issue arises in the city.
"We have not done a good job anticipating" problems with 911, the mayor said in an interview. But now, he added, "the safety nets are in place."
But these changes by T-Mobile and the city only address part of the problem, according to interviews with more than a dozen industry experts, as well as 911 staffing records obtained by The News. Dallas is still not answering calls as quickly as it should, according to national standards, and remains vulnerable to the next crisis.
Nationwide, brief interruptions to 911 service for wireless customers have become a problem as cellphones began accounting for most emergency calls. Such outages, which usually last a few hours, have popped up from Washington, D.C., to California, and have involved multiple carriers.
T-Mobile has had its share of problems. In 2015, it paid a $17.5 million fine — the largest to date — to the Federal Communications Commission over three hours of emergency-call outages. Separately, Denver officials said they recently solved an issue with T-Mobile that had caused calls to back up.
But experts said nowhere else has had the kind of meltdown Dallas did.
For years, people have complained about shaky service at the city’s 911 call center, a windowless office in the basement of City Hall where operators answer 2 million calls a year.
In 2012, a woman was strangled while on the phone with 911; her death exposed serious understaffing at the call center. Two years later, another woman was found dead; her family said police didn’t take their 911 call seriously. Still another woman was shot and paralyzed in 2015 while she waited for police to respond to multiple emergency calls. All resulted in lawsuits against the city, which it continues to fight.
In 2015, Dallas paid more than $200,000 for an outside review of its emergency-call system. It has refused to release the details to the public, and it’s unclear if officials took any action.
This was the backdrop when mysterious T-Mobile calls began flooding the 911 center on Thanksgiving Day last year. The spike recurred on Christmas Eve and continued intermittently for months.
The surges flummoxed everyone. T-Mobile and the city began weekly — then daily — phone calls to try to figure out what went wrong.
The city homed in on a technical glitch by mid-February: something was causing legitimate T-Mobile 911 calls to appear as multiple hang-ups, and those extra calls clogged the system.
By March 11, William Finch, the city’s technology chief, wrote that he was at a loss: “I have very little confidence in T-Mobile resolving this.”
Nearly 400 calls waited in the hold queue at the 911 center that evening, according to city emails obtained by The News. The wait time stretched to 34 minutes. People resorted to showing up at fire stations for help.
That same night, a 6-month-old boy rolled off a daybed and was found unconscious, according to a report by the medical examiner. His baby sitter said she tried 911 three times — then waited on hold for more than half an hour.
The boy, Brandon Alex, became the second person to die during the 911 crisis. The medical examiner ruled his death an accident.
Only days earlier, 52-year-old Brian Cross died after his husband said he waited on hold for 20 minutes.
It's unclear whether a quicker response from 911 would have made a difference in either case.
How could this have happened? Why did 911 fail? The city pointed the finger at T-Mobile, which flew in executives to meet with the mayor after he called the company's performance "unacceptable." The company later complained it had been unfairly blamed, and said understaffing was the root cause of the problem.
The News has now pinpointed the mechanics of the T-Mobile snafu and uncovered the severity of underlying issues that put Dallas at risk.
T-Mobile customers had only three to six seconds to reach a 911 operator or a pre-recorded message over the carrier’s highest-speed network, the city says, before T-Mobile rerouted the call to an older network, such as 3G. T-Mobile says that time range is inaccurate but won't say how long its customers have to reach operators before the fallback system kicks in.
"That phone believes it is not connected, and what happens is it falls back to its 3G connection and places another call," said Cornell Perry, a senior technology manager for the city.
The problem: Dallas’ 911 center interpreted those as multiple calls, even though the caller placed only one. As operators tried to reach the apparent hang-ups, frustrated callers could not get through. Some did not even get a hold message. Many hung up and tried again — adding even more calls.
When T-Mobile disabled the fallback system, the two-call issue ceased, the city says.
However long the time period was for T-Mobile's customers to reach an operator, "the fact that they changed it indicates it should have been longer,” said Walt Magnussen, director of Texas A&M University’s emergency communications research center.
T -Mobile is trying to block the city from releasing some records about the 911 meltdown to The News. But in a statement it said, "What happened in Dallas is something we take very seriously, as demonstrated by our response to the city's request for help."
Rawlings acknowledged early on that the 911 center was understaffed, but records show just how alarmingly so.
The city budgets for 101 call takers; in March, it had only 61, with 15 others in training.
Between October and mid-April of this year, 911 call takers worked more than 13,000 hours of overtime, far more than experts recommend. It cost taxpayers about $400,000, according to records obtained by The News.
Meanwhile, overworked staffers routinely called in sick. Call takers took 3,500 hours of sick time — about 17 hours' worth a day — in the same period.
"It's a very stressful job — in a lot of ways, a thankless job," said Jesse Reyes, a deputy Dallas police chief who oversees the 911 center. "Not a lot of people want it."
Low staffing contributes to slow response times. Ninety percent of calls should be answered within 10 seconds, according to national standards.
Two years ago, the city met that. But while the T-Mobile spikes bedeviled the Dallas 911 call center, only 76.5 percent of calls were answered within that time frame.
The city has also had trouble managing the call center. Some police officers have been assigned there while the department investigates them for possible policy violations. “They're not allowed to have citizen contact right now," Reyes said.
When asked whether he still had confidence in 911's leadership, Rawlings pointed out that Eric Campbell, the assistant city manager who oversaw Dallas police and the emergency-call system, recently left that post.
On top of staffing issues, the technology in the 911 center is inadequate.
The system cannot distinguish between a live caller and a hang-up. It also cannot recognize when multiple calls came from one phone number, city officials said. And it didn’t have enough telephone lines to ensure that all callers got a message telling them to hold.
The city says it has already added some lines; a technology upgrade is in the works for later this year, according to Perry, the IT manager.
Managers in Dallas have not taken simple steps that help other 911 centers cope.
Elsewhere, emergency-call centers stagger shifts so that call takers overlap during the busiest parts of the day. Dallas has just three eight-hour shifts that bump up to each other end-to-end.
Some cities use scheduling software to plan how many workers they need at any given moment. Dallas has a similar program, but 911 managers did not know it existed.
And as Dallas loads up on overtime, experts recommend that cities limit extra hours to avoid burnout.
A year ago, San Diego’s 911 call center faced similar challenges. Not enough call takers and scheduling problems resulted in only 80 percent of calls answered within 10 seconds.
The city increased call takers’ pay, began using overlapping shifts and revamped the scheduling system.
"Last year, we were still using paper schedules with different color ink," San Diego police Capt. Jerry Hara said. "I was waiting for the stone tablets and the dinosaurs."
Today, 95 percent of 911 calls in San Diego are answered in 10 seconds.
In Dallas, 87.5 percent of calls were being answered that quickly in May, up from only 64 percent in February.
Campbell, the assistant city manager who oversaw the emergency-call system and resigned last month, could not be reached for comment. His boss, City Manager T.C. Broadnax, declined to say whether the 911 problems contributed to the departure.
"We mutually agreed that it would be best for him to pursue other opportunities," he said.
Brandon's final minutes
All of this comes too late for baby Brandon, who was barely breathing when his baby sitter called his mother and reported that she could not get through to 911. The sitter gave the boy CPR on the kitchen counter and tried to coax him awake. She didn’t have a car; she needed an ambulance. Why wouldn’t 911 answer?
His mother, Bridget Alex, raced across town to her son and rushed him to the hospital. Medics transferred him to a different emergency room. But it was too late.
He was pronounced dead at 7:48 p.m.
Less than an hour later, another 911 call came from their North Dallas apartment. Michaelle Cohen, the baby sitter who lived with the Alexes, had been left there alone. Distraught with grief and guilt, she says, she tried to commit suicide by taking pills. A friend found her and dialed 911.
This time, someone picked up.
Paramedics responded to an overdose call at 8:37 p.m., Dallas Fire-Rescue confirmed. They took Cohen to the same hospital where Brandon died.
Neither woman can bear to return to the apartment, they said in recent interviews. Cohen is sleeping on friends’ couches; Alex often sleeps in her car, where Brandon’s favorite baby bib hangs in the rearview mirror.
She said she’s happy that her friend is alive, but remains bitter about the system that failed. Last month, she sued T-Mobile.
“You’re 911. You’re supposed to be there for us,” she said. “Why weren’t you there for my son?”
Copyright 2017 Dallas Morning News