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Unsuccessful calls to 911 spark multi-agency investigation
POULSBO — Federal law requires that you be able to call 911 on your cell phone, even if you have no minutes or carrier.
That’s right: Turn on a cell phone. If it’s got a signal, you should be able to 911.
Local, state and federal emergency management officials take 911 access seriously. So, when Ash and Angie Daignault of Suquamish weren’t able to connect to 911 when their 10-month-old daughter had a seizure Jan. 16, the incident started an investigation that ultimately involved officials at Kitsap County CenCom, the state Emergency Management Division, and the manager of the state Enhanced 911 Unit.
Here’s what happened.
At about 8:24 p.m. on Jan. 16, Angie Daignault was driving and about three blocks from her house on Candy Circle when her daughter, Ally Mae, appeared to be having a seizure. She called 911 on her Virgin Mobile cell phone and got what sounded like a busy signal; the tone sounded three times, then hung up.
Angie drove home and alerted her husband, Ash. He called 911 on his Virgin Mobile phone 11 times between 8:27 and 8:29 p.m. Each time, the same thing: A busy signal tone sounded three times, then hung up. They finally went to a neighbor and called using the neighbor’s phone.
“I’ve had my phone for six years and I’ve never had a problem,” Ash said, adding that he used it to call 911 last year. This time, “I called 911 when I needed it and it didn’t work.”
The next day, Ash called Virgin Mobile to find out why he couldn’t call 911. He said a supervisor told him he’s not able to call 911 using his phone, an older model. “You must call customer care and have them call for the right emergency personnel,” he said he was told. That comment couldn’t be verified, but Ash’s assertion that he was told that — and the fact he and his wife couldn’t call 911 — got wheels turning from Poulsbo to Olympia.
Officials want to make sure that there isn’t a hiccup in the system that would keep someone, anyone, from connecting to 911 using a cell phone.
The Federal Communications Commission estimates that about 70 percent of 911 calls are placed from wireless phones, and that percentage is growing. “For many Americans, the ability to call 911 for help in an emergency is one of the main reasons they own a wireless phone,” according to the FCC’s website.
“Other wireless 911 calls come from ‘Good Samaritans’ reporting traffic accidents, crimes or other emergencies. The prompt delivery of wireless 911 calls to public safety organizations benefits the public by promoting safety of life and property.”
Kitsap County CenCom director Richard Kirton said wireless signals can sometimes be tricky. 911 calls made near county lines have been known to stray to a neighboring county, which reroutes the call to the correct local emergency service provider. Point is, a 911 call can be made.
“If he’s got signal, he should be able to call 911,” Kirton said.
Ziggy Dahl, E911 Unit manager for the state of Washington, said, “We know of no technical reason that that call should not go through if he had a signal. We have been in contact with the network provider and we’re trying to figure it out.”
(All officials were able to breathe easier when they learned that 10-month-old Ally Mae — born on St. Patrick’s Day 2013 with a shamrock-shaped birthmark — is OK; she had had a fever but was recovering, her dad reported.)
A Virgin Mobile supervisor had Ash take the battery out of his phone to reset the handset and try again. He was then able to connect to 911. “That doesn’t add up,” Kirton said. “We’ve pushed Virgin Mobile to investigate.”
Lorena Pino of Virgin Mobile corporate communications said Jan. 17, “All Virgin Mobile devices are able to use 911 with no limitations. The 911 feature works even if the device is not active.”
On Jan. 20, Jayne Wallace, director of Virgin Mobile corporate communications, reported, “I did just speak with Mr. Daignault and obtained the information about his phone, and his wife’s [phone]. We have a team looking into this and will contact both Mr. Daignault and you as soon as we have something to report.”
On Jan. 28, Wallace reported: "Upon investigation, it appears that a recent software update caused intermittent call blocking during a limited time period. Our network operations center had been analyzing the issue and considered rolling back the software update, but were able to correct it before that was necessary. Following that action, network statistics indicate it has been operating normally."
Meanwhile, the Daignaults have gotten new phones from a different provider. He doesn’t want it to happen to anyone else, and cites some of the emergencies that could happen in which a cell phone call to 911 could mean a life saved.
“For example, [you] get into a car accident and can’t call 911,” he said. “Someone breaks into your house with a gun, you can’t call 911. You’re driving and have a heart attack and can’t call 911. Who in their right mind would sign up for that?”