April 20, 2011

Wowway joins 911 call probe

Published Arpil 20, 2011
By Ted Schnell •
It appears that a technical glitch within phone service provider Wowway’s system may be to blame for rerouting an Elgin man’s 911 call to Lake County, Ind., on April 12.

Elgin police on Tuesday worked with the resident to see if they could repeat the rerouting glitch, something police Sgt. Dennis Hood initially had not been optimistic about being able to do, believing it likely it was rare and not likely to be repeated.

But during a phone test coordinated by the department’s dispatch center Wednesday morning, the incident was successfully repeated.

The resident was able to call the Elgin Police Department using 911, but when he dialed 1-911, the call was rerouted to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office dispatch center in Crown Point, Ind.

Hood said that should not happen, because safeguards are supposed to be in place to ensure that even misdialed 911 calls and even 1-911 calls are directed to a local emergency dispatch center.

Crown Point is about 80 miles from Elgin.

What made this case more unusual, Hood said, was that it involved the caller’s home phone – a “land line” – not a cell phone or VOIP service, Hood said, Land-line calls, he added, should always be routed to a local emergency dispatch center, definitely not to one in another state.

After Wednesday’s test, Elgin police – as well as the sheriff’s office dispatcher in Indiana – directed the resident to call his phone service provider, which is Wowway, to report the issue.

Wowway customer service representatives took the resident’s information and said they were escalating it to a manager’s attention since it involved 911 service. A manager talked with the resident and said Wowway would call him back within 24 hours.

Hood added that some of Elgin’s dispatchers have service provided by Wowway and are planning to test their own phones to determine whether the issue is one that involves more Wowway customers in the Elgin area, or if it is confined to the service of only the one resident.

The resident has been asked to call Elgin police back with Wowway’s response.
Hood said if the problem is broader in scope, the department may consider issuing an announcement that residents should avoid dialing 1 before calling 911.

The issue first was discovered about 12:45 a.m. April 12, when the southwest-side man called 1-911 to report hearing what he believed to have been five or more shotgun blasts in the area of his home. But instead of Elgin police, a dispatcher in Crown Point answered the call. The dispatcher told the resident that this kind of thing – in which a suburban Chicago caller in Illinois dials 911 and gets the Lake County, Ind., sheriff’s office – has happened before on occasion.

The issue is potentially serious, Hood said, because if it had been a medical emergency or a fire, for example, every minute counts in getting emergency responders to the scene as quickly as possible.

A misdirected call, especially to an out-of-state agency that may not have the appropriate local police or fire number on hand, could add minutes to the response by emergency personnel.

Some issues are known

Hood said there are known instances in which calls can be routed to the wrong agency.
For example, those using a VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) service could have 911 calls misdirected if, when they subscribe to the service, they fail to fill out the Internet form to specify their address, town and ZIP code. That feature is designed to direct their emergency calls to the correct agency.

Also, Hood said, cell phone calls to 911 sometimes are routed to other nearby agencies when the cell tower taking the signal is located near a community boundary but in another jurisdiction. For example, the signal from a cell phone call on Elgin’s south side might bounce off a cell tower near South Elgin, and a 911 call in that instance might be received by South Elgin police.

Dispatchers, Hood said, are trained to redirect such calls to the appropriate agencies. But even in those instances, he added, the dispatchers stay on the line to provide assistance until the other agency can take over the call.

Hood said that in a medical emergency, Elgin’s dispatchers are trained and have protocols to follow to ensure the caller is not left hanging – for example, a dispatcher can provide information to help the caller with an unexpected child birth, or ask questions about a patient’s condition that can be radioed to an ambulance so paramedics can better prepare to deal with that particular patient’s crisis even before they arrive.