Why is 911 not picking up? Technology, training affect calls made from cellphones

I-Team: Some 911 calls go to wrong call center
Posted at 7:00 AM, Oct 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-27 23:55:58-04

CINCINNATI -- When you call 911, you expect to hear a voice on the other end of the line within seconds.

But that's not always the case. The cause: A technology hiccup called "ghost calls." 

"The phone will ring, but it's not really ringing at a 911 center," Cincinnati Police Capt. Jeff Butler said. "It's filling space."

A "ghost call" is a 911 call made from a cellphone that can't get through, according to Butler. 

Cincinnati resident Sara Poehlmann experienced that firsthand during a Friday evening rush hour in September. She was driving on Fort Washington Way when she was involved in a chain-reaction crash.

"I called 911 and it rang and rang and rang and rang and rang and rang..." Poehlmann said.

A couple miles away on a different afternoon, business owner Sylvia Krull needed help at her store in Lower Price Hill after a robbery.

"I say it took at least two minutes," she said. "It just rang and rang, and no one answered."

Krull said her store has been robbed more than 100 times. The location is apparently a tricky one for 911 systems, because her calls are frequently directed to the wrong call center.

"Usually it takes time because they have to pass me to somebody else," Krull said.

When someone calls 911 from a cellphone, it goes through the cellphone towers to the Cincinnati Bell switch, and then to one of the five 911 call centers in or near Cincinnati, Capt. Butler said. 

There are five different call centers within reach of downtown Cincinnati. That means the calls sometimes go to the wrong operator. Those operators have to then transfer the call to the correct call center.

For example: an operator at the Cincinnati Police Communications Center answered a recent 911 call that came from a caller who was actually in Silverton. That village is covered by Hamilton County Communication, a different 911 call center.

"Cellphones don't really know if you're in Cincinnati, Covington or if you're in Fort Meyer," Butler said.

Butler said it typically takes just over four seconds for the phone system to figure out where it will send the call from a cellphone to a Cincinnati Bell router, which then sends the call to a 911 center. Any additional time the caller hears ringing is spent waiting for a 911 operator to answer.

The log for Poehlmann's 911 call after the Fort Washington Way crash shows she called 911 from downtown Cincinnati at about 5:15 p.m. on a Friday, a time when many people are on their phones. It took 43 seconds for a dispatcher to answer her call, and the average wait time at 5 p.m. that day was 52 seconds.

Seven operators were working then, which is considered minimum staffing. All but one of them were in on-the-job training (12 operators recently finished a year of on-the-job training).

"We strive for most of our calls to be answered in less than 10 seconds," Butler said.

And that mostly happens. Data from the city's Office of Performance and Data Analytics show in 2014, operators answered 80 percent of 911 calls within 10 seconds. Those are the most recent stats available. 

The 9 On Your Side I-Team previously investigated issues with 911 call times and training in 2013 after a dispatcher hung up on a woman. The I-Team uncovered at the time that one-in-five calls were answered in less than 10 seconds. Untrained operators were answering phones due to understaffing, and they weren't trained in basic CPR and first aid.

The communications center was civilian-run then. The police department took over the operation on Jan. 22, 2016.

Untrained operators are no longer answering phones and all operators are now trained to give callers basic medical help while they wait for paramedics to arrive.

Butler said there's still room for improvement. Operations centers have the challenge and expense of keeping up-to-date on technology.

"We're talking millions [of dollars]," Butler said. "And that's just to keep up my maintenance and support of the systems. Infrastructure for the new [Computer-Aided Dispatch] system we're putting in, that's approaching $3 million."

System upgrades are planned over the next two years. Butler said he expects to reduce or eliminate the "ghost calls" and improve answer times. However, the technology will already be outdated by then, he said.

"I guarantee you we're trying out best," Butler said.

Poehlmann worries some calls for help could go unanswered in the meantime.

"I'm glad they're getting it fixed, she said. "But what happens between now and 2018?"

Even if it is taking a while for an operator to answer, it's important to not hang up after calling 911, Butler said. If you call again, you go to the end of the line. If you don't call again, the operator will call you back, but that can sometimes take hours, depending on call volume.

WCPO's James Leggate contributed to this report.