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911 calls on mobile phones can be tracked, but Verizon has not installed the tech in some areas

Geospatial routing, also called location-based routing, uses GPS information and other data and has been around for a few years


Kyaw Oo, Ma Kaing’s oldest surviving son, is show in a meeting at Hidden Brook Apartment in Denver on Wednesday. Community leaders of East Colfax held an accountability meeting with law enforcement agencies to highlight the failures to address public safety in East Colfax and call for immediate action following the killing of Ma Kaing.

Photo/Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post/Tribune News Service

Noelle Phillips
The Denver Post

DENVER — When a business owner and beloved member of Denver’s East Colfax neighborhood was shot outside her apartment late July 15, four calls to 911 — including the first one made — went to Aurora’s emergency operations center, most likely because the callers were using Verizon as their wireless carrier.

Technology exists to more accurately route 911 calls from cellphones to the correct 911 communications center, but Verizon — one of the three major carriers in the United States — has refused to install it in Denver and other parts of the country.

T-Mobile and AT&T put the technology in play in Denver earlier this year, said Andrew Dameron, director of the city’s 911 service.

But Verizon declined even after city officials asked the company to do so.

“Their response was they essentially are not doing the same thing that AT&T and T-Mobile are doing but believe the onus is on the states and 911 authorities to come up with solutions to use that technology,” Dameron said.

Dameron provided to The Denver Post a copy of the response he received from Verizon, in which a company representative wrote, “Verizon’s policy is that 911 authorities themselves — not wireless handsets — should determine 911 call routing, and we strongly support ongoing state and local government initiatives to incorporate location-based routing capabilities into 911 centers’ next-generation 911 (NG911) networks.”

Verizon did not respond to two email queries from The Post.

“There is no quick fix”

Kyaw Oo, whose mother Ma Kaing was killed July 15, said he and his sister have Verizon phones. His sister was the first person to call 911 after a random bullet fired from a nearby park struck their mother while she was outside the Hidden Brook apartments at 1313 Xenia St., near the Denver/ Aurora border.

That call went to Aurora and it took three minutes and 50 seconds before she was transferred to a Denver 911 operator, according to accounts provided by the two cities’ public safety offices.

The inability of cellphone users to always reach the correct 911 call center is a national problem, said Daryl Branson, 911 program manager for the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. It can be fixed by federal and state governments, but it takes time and money to do so, he said.

Wireless carriers with the desire to upgrade technology can do it at a much faster pace, he said.

“There is no quick fix for this,” Branson said. “If there was, we would have done it already.”

For years, 911 calls from cellphones were routed to an emergency communications center based on the closest cell tower to the caller. So if a person was standing near the Aurora/ Denver border, the call could go to whichever city the tower was in, not whichever side of the city limits the caller was standing on.

That’s the routing technology Verizon still uses, Dameron said.

The technology that more accurately pinpoints where a cellphone user is standing when dialing 911 is called geospatial routing or location-based routing. The new technology, which has existed since around 2018, uses GPS information and other data to more precisely pinpoint a caller’s location.

“For a very long time, location information just didn’t exist in an accurate enough of a format for call routing,” Branson said. “You couldn’t get it in the first two or three seconds, which is what you need for routing.”

In May, AT&T became the first nationwide carrier to pledge to install the technology across the country. Colorado was among the first states where it was implemented, Dameron said. It came online in Colorado and 15 other states that month.

T-Mobile said in 2019 that it would create location-based routing upon a city’s request. Denver requested it in March, Dameron said, and it’s being tested now.

In July, the Federal Communications Commission announced it was taking location-based routing under consideration in a move that would require carriers around the country to update their systems for 911 calls. The FCC has been talking about this move since 2018, so it could be years before any regulations are adopted, according to the FCC’s notice seeking public comment.

Statewide, a task force is considering draft legislation to send to the General Assembly to redirect a state 911 surcharge to a project that could build out location-based routing across Colorado, Branson said. The project is needed even if carriers would voluntarily implement location-based routing across the state because it would help 911 offices with other emergency situations, such as backing each other up if one agency’s system crashes, he said.

To build that system statewide, an outside company would have to be hired to create a statewide dataset compiled from every 911 system in Colorado, Dameron said.

“The heavy lift would be building that dataset for the state,” he said.

But 911 directors want it done. They say it’s necessary to keep up with the rapidly evolving cellphone technology and to make their communities safer.

“911, y’all need to step up”

Meanwhile, residents along the Aurora/ Denver border — which is divided by Yosemite Street — are calling for change in their neighborhood.

After years of increasing violence, residents say they have been begging for police, emergency services and other city officials to help them. At a neighborhood meeting on Wednesday, tension boiled over as residents, many of whom cried when speaking of Kaing’s death, complained about slow 911 response and constant gunfire at night.

They said Denver’s police, fire and EMS take too long to respond to calls from the neighborhood all the time — not just the night Kaing died.

“911, y’all need to step up,” said Taneisha Lintz, a resident of Hidden Brook apartments. “We need help over here.”

On the night Kaing was killed, she and her children had stayed late at their recently opened restaurant, Taw Win, to bake desserts for a catering order. They were unloading pans of dessert into their apartment when someone started firing a gun at New Freedom Park, which is catty-corner from Hidden Brook apartments.

Oo and his family have said it took as long as 15 minutes for EMS to arrive to help Kaing.

Denver officials, however, provided a timeline Friday that showed an ambulance arrived at the scene at 11:35 p.m., five minutes and 17 seconds after the city received the first 911 call at 11:29 p.m. A ShotSpotter gunshot detection system signaled 30 shots had been fired in the area at 11:29 p.m., just 17 seconds before the first 911 call came in.

The first police officer arrived on the scene five minutes and 16 seconds after the first dispatch call, the city’s timeline showed.

The Post filed an open records request for the 911 audio recordings but the city has not yet provided them.

Because cellphone calls along the border can go to the wrong 911 call center, Denver and Aurora have an intercom they use to communicate while they are trying to transfer calls. An Aurora operator patched into Denver and asked for an ambulance for Kaing before her daughter was transferred to a Denver operator, Dameron said. That happened within the first minute, he said.

Denver has the same setup with the other cities and counties with which it shares a border.

“We have that in place because of this situation,” he said.

It is not known whether a different call routing system would have made a difference for Kaing. And her son said he doubts whether it will make difference in the future.

“I can’t say for my neighbors, but I doubt having a different cellphone service should do anything when anybody calls for help and they don’t receive an adequate response time,” Oo said.

Dameron said he understands the frustration. He will attend a second community meeting this week to try to answer residents’ questions about what happened.

“When you dial 911 you shouldn’t hear them say I need to transfer you to someone else,” he said. “That shouldn’t happen. Because of this very reason, we as an industry and a state government and federal government need to keep moving toward new and better technology.”


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