City of Dallas scrambles to fix 911 call center issue in wake of 2 deaths

Last Updated Mar 16, 2017 3:12 PM EDT

DALLAS -- Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings called the ghost calls plaguing 911 the city’s “number one priority,” CBS Dallas / Fort Worth reports.

T-Mobile engineers arrived in Dallas Wednesday morning, vowing to stay until the problem is fixed. Rawlings, however, was unable to explain why the sense of urgency didn’t come sooner.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m very disappointed with that. It should have been taken care of, in my mind, some weeks ago, definitely last week.”

Dallas resident David Taffet confronted Mayor Rawlings on Wednesday to say it took 20 minutes to get through to 911 after his husband stopped breathing last week.

At one point, Taffet was disconnected. He was placed on hold when he called back. Paramedics promptly arrived after he finally got through but his husband later died at a hospital.

Ghost calls happen when a person on a T-Mobile cell phone makes a single call to Dallas 911, but that call somehow gets caught in a loop. This means the emergency call center begins receiving hand-up calls from that same number and the loop can continue to happen over and over.

Emergency policy dictates that 911 operators respond to every hang up call. In the case of ghost calls, this wastes the time of operators while leaving other callers on hold.

Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax said the ghost calls began in October.

In November, the City notified T-Mobile of the large number of calls it was receiving. In January, both Dallas city leaders and the wireless carrier say they believed the problem was fixed, only to see it re-appear in the last few weeks in even larger numbers.

“Last Saturday, there was an experience and spike in calls we had not seen before,” said T.C. Broadnax.

It was during that spike that 6-month-old Brandon Alex’s 19-year-old babysitter tried getting through to emergency services. She never did and Brandon later died from an injury still under investigation.

The baby’s mother, Bridget Alex, said, “When I came and picked up my son she [babysitter] was still on hold with 911.”

T-Mobile claims adjustments made Wednesday and Thursday should improve, if not solve, the issue.

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  The City of Dallas reported that T-Mobile phones were spontaneously dialing 911 leaving a babysitter unable to reach 911 on Sat., March 11, 2017, because their lines were swamped that evening.

CBS Dallas-Fort Worth

“We provide the same service all across the country,” explained T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray. “There is something unique in this complex, this system here, that we have not been able to identify.”

The only other city experiencing a similar problem, Denver, has seen it on a much smaller scale, according to documents provided to CBS News.

Meanwhile, officials in Dallas say they are increasing 911 staffing, asking officers trained to take calls to work overtime and offering training to other city staff. “We have to make sure it never happens again,” said Rawlings.

Any Dallas resident calling 911 and who is placed on hold is being asked to remain on the line, because hanging up to redial will only bump them to the back of the line.

A spokesperson for the FCC said the federal agency is aware of the issue and that “its review is ongoing.”

A state report released in 2014 by the Commission on State Emergency Communications notes 911 service will erode as new digital technology is introduced. The report says that’s because existing 911 systems in Texas and other states are “based on wireline technologies established decades ago.”

The phantom calls are happening at the same time Dallas-based AT&T experienced its own 911 problems. AT&T cellphone customers in Texas and other states were unable to call 911 for a time on March 8. The company has not explained the cause of the disruption.

In a T-Mobile statement provided to CBS News, the company says:

“We remain completely committed to solving this issue and have been working daily with the Dallas [911 center] to find a permanent solution to this problem. We are increasing our efforts and bringing in additional engineers to Dallas to further collaborate with the [911 center] team. These top engineers will not rest until the problem is resolved.”