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Date of Issue: April 30, 2008

Sprint: 911 fire call misfired

Pa Davis raced from her burning home on 58th Street in Holmes Beach April 17 and immediately sought help.

She followed procedure. As her husband, Kent, sought aid from neighbors, Pa Davis called 911 on her cell phone. Placing the call at 2:17 a.m., she would have been the first to notify local emergency officials of the fire moving rapidly through her single-story home by the bay.

But Pa’s call apparently didn’t go to the Manatee County 911 Emergency Communications Center. Instead, the call went to another ECC, possibly on the East Coast of Florida in the Ft. Lauderdale/Miami area, according to a representative with the Sprint wireless service.

911 calls get misdirected, but not frequently, said Capt. Larry Leinhauser, the public information officer for the Manatee County Department of Public Safety.

“Thank goodness it isn’t common,” Leinhauser said. “But it does happen once in a while. It usually is a result of a router problem with the service provider when [the call] goes through or to a tandem. It is not an issue of any problems with our 911 center. It is the cell phone providers having technical problems on their end. We answer any 911 calls we receive ASAP.”

Mobile services over the years have presented challenges to 911 systems and the service providers. With wireless calls, which don’t carry a fixed address, service providers and emergency systems created new systems to map the call, identify the callback number and direct the caller to a 911 center. The Federal Communications Commission adopted rules in 1999 intended to improve the ability of cellular phone users to complete wireless 911 calls.

Generally, a wireless 911 call goes from the handset to an antennae, to a wireless carrier switching center through equipment to locate the caller, routing equipment and a call-back database to the emergency command center.

Pa’s service provider is Sprint, which responding to an inquiry from Kent Davis, indicated that the 911 call from the Davis cell phone went to the Ft. Lauderdale/Miami area. Sprint on Friday released an update of its review, “Our network team has found no issues with Sprint routing the call. They believe once the call is routed to one of the landline trunks that is where the issue is occurring. Our network team has contacted Verizon (landline) to troubleshoot the issue from there.”

Pa remembered the moments leading up to her phone call as frantic. The couple awoke to the sound of smoke detectors going off. After realizing a fire was in the house, they fled through the front door and Pa dialed her cell phone.

“The first time I remember was 2:15 a.m.,” Kent said. “I probably looked at our cell phone.”

Sprint’s record shows that Pa placed a call at 2:17 a.m. Pa said the first attempt to call 911 failed.

“Nobody answered,” she said, but added that she was frantic, not certain how well she dialed and of her ability to communicate. “I even forgot my address.”

Pa ran next door to ask a neighbor for help as she received what appeared to be a return call from a 911 center to her phone. The neighbor, Arlene Byrne, talked with a emergency operator about the fire, but The Islander has not yet located a recording of that call. The Broward County Sheriff’s Office reviewed its calls from that morning and could not identify any received from the Davis cell phone or the Sprint service.

The first call to the Manatee County ECC was received at 2:19 a.m. and West Manatee Fire Rescue reported receiving a dispatch to the fire at2:23:57 a.m., according to Capt. Tom Sousa.

Holmes Beach Police Department responded to the fire with an officer arriving on the scene at 2:26 a.m., seconds before the first fire truck at 2:26:50 a.m., according to an incident report released last week.

The local response, said Sousa, went according to procedure.

“There was no delay at the communication center … and our turnout was within our standards,” the captain said.

The Davises described the 911 matter as weird, but didn’t dwell on the misdirected call as they kept busy last week reorganizing their lives in Byrne’s guest apartment next to their burned home.

“This doesn’t matter much,” Kent said. “It’s all very close in time.”

Kent Davis said he’s more concerned with lessons learned in fighting the fire than the details of the 911 calls or the initial response time. He said he wanted homeowners to think about what they can do to protect their property and personal safety and he wanted the fire department to consider what it can do to better fight fire on a barrier island. (See separate story.)

“I hope that people on the Island can all learn from the experience about fighting fire in this unique environment,” he said, referring to high winds and a distant fire hydrant - which both were the case in the Davis fire.