Lost in the System
Hank Investigates: Lost in the System
The call comes into Worcester 911.
"We have a fire in the warehouse."
The caller sounds desperate!
"The smoke is coming in we have to get out."
She doesn't give an address, so dispatchers rely on the state's computerized 911 system to reveal her location: records prove it showed 709 Main Street, Worcester.
So the Worcester fire department races into action. They arrive at 709 Main, but there's nothing. No smoke no fire, so where were the terrified people calling for help?
What happened next our investigation found could happen every day in Massachusetts! The 911 computer designed to pinpoint a caller's location had the address wrong.
Turns out: There really was a fire -- a big one -- at 709 Main Street... but 20 miles away in Sturbridge!
Records we obtained reveal it took nine more minutes for Sturbridge to get the word by that time the damage to David Argitis's family business: $10 million.
David Argitis, Business Owner
"To think of them going to the wrong place, it's horrific."
How could this happen? Though each local phone company is supposed to enter each of their customers into the 911 database. Our investigation of these once secret state records now uncovers the true extent of the errors in that system, wrong house numbers, wrong street names, wrong communities. Last fall 911 executive director Jamie Karp told us they found 3,600 such mistakes each year.
"that's 10 a day!"
Jaime Karp, State Emer. Telecommunications Board (November 2001)
But that's simply not correct! And here's how we know. For each 911 mistake, dispatchers must fill out a "discrepancy report" like this. We wanted to count them ourselves: for months -- 911 officials refused. Finally we appealed to the secretary of state and the attorney general and 911 was ordered: turn over the reports. And our count was far different -- hundreds and hundreds more mistakes each year.
"How can there be so many more errors, how could that be?"
"I need to go back and check."
In a system where a mistake can mean life or death, we found 911 errors may be filed and forgotten.
"How could you not know how many mistakes there are in your system? You run his place."
"Yes I do run this place. I do apologize to you and the viewers for what appears to be a lack of knowledge for something that should be instantly available."
And what we found in our analysis of those secret records is disturbing: across the state 911 callers waiting for help -- emergency crews sent to the wrong address and dispatchers struggling to help callers who are lost in the system.
"Please call the police!"
In Lawrence a terrified resident reports a home invasion.
"Please call the police, please call the police!"
"Sir where are you?"
But the 911 computer showed no address! Dispatchers use critical minutes trying to find him!
"Please come on."
"Sir, I don't know where you are! Where are you?"
In Brookline emergency calls from the senior center, the municipal golf course, and Devotion School show up as coming from town hall!
Andrea Fonte, Brookline Phone Administrator
"It's scary, very scary."
Town system manager Andrea Fonte struggles with phone companies to get those and dozens of other errors fixed.
"How many more addresses are wrong?"
"No one knows."
"When will you know."
"You wonít know until something happens."
When mistakes ARE discovered, itís critical they be corrected. 911 Director Karp says that should take up to three days -- no longer.
"How often does it take longer than three days, do you know that?"
"I do not know that."
We know that. Using these discrepancy reports, we uncovered the true picture: dozens of 911 errors taking weeks and even months to correct!
We showed Karp the proof -- in towns we counted, one out of three mistakes takes too long to fix!
"It's a huge problem, it's a huge problem."
"Why didn't you know about this before now?"
"I don't have an answer for you for that, I should have known."
Karp promises she'll now make changes. But until then, the system designed to help those in trouble is threatened by troubles of its own.
"Your point is well taken, way too many, way too long. I don't know why, and I should."
One last important warning: do NOT call 911 to verify your address is correct. That would be a dangerous burden on the system. You can call your local phone company's business office to make certain your emergency information is correct.
If you have multiple phone lines in your home or business you may want to check to make sure each individual line has the correct address listed for it in the statewide 911 database. Call your local phone carrier for this information -- do NOT call 911.
The next time you do need to place an emergency 911 call make sure to try and tell the operator the exact address of the place you are calling from even if you are not asked. This will help emergency crews find you if your address is listed wrong in the database.
Link to the Statewide Emergency Telecommunications Board: www.state.ma.us/e911/core.htm