Flaw in Portland’s 911 system just discovered, city ombudsman says

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Portland Ombudsman Margie Sollinger says there’s a serious problem with our 911 system that dates back more than a decade, but it has just recently been uncovered.

It has to do with a screening system in place meant to weed out “pocket dials” from cell phones, which the Federal Communications Commission reports makes up about half of all 911 calls across the country.

As it stands now, people who use cell phones to call 911 in the Portland area automatically go to a screening system called the XMU, which requires that callers push a button or make a noise to indicate that their call is, in fact, an emergency.

If a dispatcher isn’t immediately available, their call is put into a queue. Often times these calls are terminated before a dispatcher answers, either because the caller hangs up or is disconnected by their service provider.

Dispatchers are supposed to call these people back, under city policy.

But Sollinger discovered there were 18,482 such calls that went un-returned in 2015 alone.

“It is scary and it potentially jeopardizes people’s lives and their safety,” Sollinger told FOX 12 on Wednesday.

The glitch in the system was uncovered after a deadly house fire in southeast Portland in May. Several neighbors called 911 and an 84-year-old woman ultimately died in the fire.

However, one woman reported that when she called 911 she was put on hold and hung up. Nobody called her back.

Sollinger discovered the Bureau of Emergency Communications had no record of her call.

“(This problem) shouldn’t exist and the city didn’t think it did,” Sollinger added. “We thought we were calling those folks back.”

The problem, Sollinger says, is that the XMU system doesn’t record cell phone numbers of calls that are terminated while in the queue before a dispatcher answers.

While there’s no way to know how many of these calls were true emergencies, BOEC spokesperson Laura Wolfe said it’s not uncommon for misdials to make it through the XMU, given how sensitive the system is.

“I believe and I think our bureau believes that if there were truly people who tried to get through and they didn’t, weren’t able to, that we would have heard about it,” Wolfe told FOX 12.

Still, she admits that when it comes to technology, there is no perfect system.

A fix may be on the horizon this spring, when a system upgrade is expected to replace the XMU with another type of screening hardware.

In the meantime, callers in the 911 queue are hearing a new message reminding them not to hang up, and if they do, dispatchers may not be able to reach them.

In the case of the deadly house fire, Sollinger said the outcome there would not have been different if this glitch didn’t exist, since other neighbors did reach dispatchers and emergency responders were already on their way.

As for the 18,482 un-returned calls last year?

“(BOEC), I think, is questioning whether those are all intentional phone calls. What we know about those calls is that they made it through the screening system so they’re presumptively intentional cell phone calls that were intending to dial 911,” Sollinger said. “What exactly they were about and whether they were true emergencies we don’t know, but that’s kind of the point. We were supposed to call back and find out.”

The report and BOEC's response are online at the city of Portland's website.

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