911 mix-up: Emergency call routed to wrong jurisdiction

When there’s an emergency, every second matters. However, some in the DMV feel that sense of urgency is missing due to an ongoing problem of 911 call mix-ups.

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Time is of the essence when someone needs help. That’s why a viewer reached out to FOX 5 to investigate the ongoing issues with 911 calls in the DC region being routed to the wrong jurisdiction.

On Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 around 6 p.m. at Belle Haven Marina in Fairfax County, a truck rolled into the river with three people inside – parents and their toddler. According to a witness, the truck just loaded a jet ski onto its trailer, but instead of pulling forward, the vehicle went in reverse – rolling backwards. A woman called 911 and was first routed to Prince George’s County, then they forwarded her to the city of Alexandria, then the emergency call went to Fairfax County.

She later found out none of the agencies could help because the marina is on was federal property.

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It took 20 minutes for any help to arrive. A U.S. Park Police spokesperson confirms officers did show up, but by then – the situation had already been handled. Luckily, everyone survived and the truck and trailer was pulled out of the water.

FOX 5 spoke with people here at Belle Haven Marina who can’t help, but worry about that happening to them.

 "I would be traumatized for one. For two – I probably wouldn’t know what to do," said Shawn Petty.

"I would think that all emergency communications would really be sufficient, but it’s sad if that happened and they weren’t able to get to the situation," said John Belter.

Barry Furey, CEO of Barry Furey Training and Consulting for Public Safety, says what’s happening is a person is calling 911, getting 911, but it’s going to the wrong location. That’s because a 911 call will go to the closest cell tower even if it’s not in the same location as the emergency which is causing trouble.

Once someone provides specific details about where they are located, the agency receiving the call should transfer it to the appropriate department.

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Here is what is being done about it: "Right now, in the United States – there is a system next generation 911 – and that is a revamping of the now analog system that has been in place since 1968. Next generation 911 for starters provides callers with the ability to text 911 and that’s already in place in many communities to attach photographs to 911 or down the road to send streaming video of the incident to 911," said Furey.

 He adds, "One of the issues that we deal with in 911, Sierra, is that we are always constantly behind the curve of public expectation. It seems like every time we catch up, there’s a new piece of technology that comes along."

FOX 5 also spoke with the former Fairfax County Director of Public Safety Communications, Steve Souder, who says he thought the issue was resolved five years ago, but clearly, there’s more work to do.