Disconnect on 911 response

A new sitcom featured the following dialogue between a dad and his son, who he is teaching to drive.

Dad: “Let me paint you a scenario … Your friend George has been stabbed and you need to get him to the hospital before he bleeds out.”

Son: “Wouldn’t I just call 911?”

Dad: “911 isn’t working.”

Son: “So this is like the apocalypse or something?”

Exactly.

Isn’t that what we’ve been taught to think of 911? Absent a major earthquake, terrorist attack, or the apocalypse, we all believe 911 will be there for us in an emergency.

Surely the Everett woman who called 911 at least 37 times last Thursday when an intruder broke into her home expected someone to answer her call. Alicia Cappola said that sometime after 2 a.m. she heard an intruder, and called 911 but couldn’t get through. So she armed herself with a knife and confronted a man who crawled through a window. He ran out of the house.

“It was truly terrifying to have someone break into my house while my kids are asleep and have no way to do anything about it,” Cappola told KING 5 News.

With the 911 system down for more than five hours in parts of Washington and Oregon, Cappola, and others, had a nightmare plopped on top of their emergencies.

Which is why the initial response by CenturyLink, the company that runs the system, and the Washington state Emergency Management Division, sounded underwhelming and casual, and turned out to be factually incorrect.

After service was restored Thursday morning, spokespersons told the Associated Press that there were no reports of emergencies where people could not get help because of the outage. CenturyLink spokeswoman Kerry Zimmer said, “I guess overnight was a good time. But no 911 outage is good.”

It’s difficult to understand why CenturyLink and Emergency Management assumed that “there were no reports of emergencies where people could not get help.” The reports were just starting to come in, including a Tacoma woman who couldn’t get through to 911 and kept passing out. She finally reached her son in San Diego, who was able to contact paramedics. The woman was hospitalized for a possible heart condition.

On Monday, CenturyLink reported about 4,500 calls failed to get through during the six-hour period. Presumably, at least some of those calls were also emergencies.

CenturyLink now says the outage was caused by a “technical error in a third-party vendor’s call router.” (Hmm, that’s a lot of vendors.)

Washington’s Emergency Management Division wants assurances from CenturyLink that this won’t happen again. Good. As long as “assurances” means “proof.”

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