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Stuck on the line: Cellphone calls routed to the wrong 911 center are costing life-saving seconds

Denver7 Investigates exposes weaknesses in the state's emergency response system
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Posted at 9:45 PM, Nov 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-19 19:25:23-05

DENVER — In the seconds after Ma Kaing was fatally struck by a stray bullet on July 15 outside of the Hidden Brook apartments in east Denver, four callers frantically trying to get help were routed to the wrong dispatch center, exposing weaknesses in the state’s emergency response system.

Audio recordings obtained by Denver7 Investigates paint a picture of frustration and angst as calls are sent to Aurora’s 911 dispatch center due to an issue 911 centers have known about for years.

The apartment complex at 1313 Xenia St. is in Denver, but the four 911 callers hit a cell tower across the border in Aurora, which bounced those initial calls to Aurora’s dispatch center. Aurora dispatchers routed the calls to Denver’s 911 center. Once transferred, the callers had to wait on hold for minutes and listen to an automated message before a Denver dispatcher picked up.

"Yeah, quit talking so long,” one caller is heard saying. “God, this 911 sucks.”

"Oh my god, this person might be dying. You can't get the ambulance here?" another caller said.

Three of the callers hung up before ever reaching Denver dispatch.

The first caller was Ma Kaing's daughter. She stayed on the line with Aurora, waiting on hold for three minutes and 26 seconds.

For years, Denver and other cities have had issues with calls from border areas being routed to the wrong dispatch because of where the nearest cellphone tower is located. Denver and state officials are trying to fix the problem by implementing new technology.

"It makes you pissed off," said Kyaw Oo, Ma Kaing’s oldest son, who was with his sister at the time of her call. The other callers were his neighbors desperately trying to help save his mom's life.

"It takes a lot of coldness to say, 'You're in the wrong department,' when you hear a child say, ‘My mother has been shot,’" Oo said.

Despite delays in those initial calls getting to the right 911 center, Denver police arrived on the scene seven minutes after the first call. That's because calls get connected to the wrong center so often, dispatchers have a dedicated intercom system to transfer emergencies. An Aurora dispatcher used that intercom system seconds after Kaing’s daughter called to alert Denver about the shooting.

Other difficulties complicating the response came when Denver firefighters were first dispatched to the scene. At first, the wrong address was relayed over the radio, which sent firefighters two blocks north of the shooting. The correct address went out on the radio minutes later.

"I have Aurora saying 1313 Xenia now,” a voice on the radio said.

Cell tower issues

Cellphone towers are at the center of this problem. Technology advancements make it easier for dispatchers to locate cellphones during an emergency. Still, many 911 calls are routed by the location of the cell towers they hit, not the caller's actual location. It's what happened the night Ma Kaing was shot.

"That cell tower was just across the border in Aurora, and it was routing those calls to Aurora 911 as opposed to Denver 911, where they should have gone," Denver 911 director Andrew Dameron said.

Denver7 Investigates found the specific routing issue in East Denver was brought up during a Denver City Council meeting four months before the shooting.

"When people call 911 in east Denver, oftentimes, they get routed to the wrong place. They'll get routed to Arapahoe County, or they’ll get routed to Aurora,” Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer said.

Dameron claims there wasn’t anything more the city could have done to fix the problem before Ma Kaing’s death.

“The solution to the 911 call routing issue is a federal and state level problem," he said.

Dameron said the state needs more funding to get the latest 911 technology in place, which would eliminate the misrouting problem.

"We've got to move with the times a little bit more," he said.

Daryl Branson oversees the state’s 911 program and said the solution is technology known as “Next Generation 911.”

“We are further ahead than some and not as far ahead as others,” Branson said.

Colorado falls short with location-based routing technology, known as GIS data. It provides critical information to dispatchers, using geographical mapping data to pinpoint a cellphone caller’s exact location, regardless of the cell tower they hit. According to the latest government report, Colorado is one of three states that have made no progress in this area.

“The reason why we haven't is simply because it is a long process,” Branson said.

State leaders promising change

State leaders hope Ma Kaing’s death is a turning point.

“I think it is an opportunity for us to pause, reflect and recognize that we can do better and should do better,” said state Rep. Julie McCluskie. D-Dillon.

She plans to sponsor legislation to fix Colorado’s flawed emergency response system. McCluskie said her hope is to build legislation that will help us address the funding shortfalls.

State Sen. Julie Gonzalez, D-Denver, is also pushing for change. She attended community meetings, speaking out in the days after the July shooting.

“Quite frankly, it shouldn't have taken a tragedy, but we're coming together and we're doing the work,” Gonzalez said.

Today, Oo is doing his best to carry on his mom’s legacy. He runs her restaurant, Taw Win Burmese and Thai Restaurant, working almost every day to keep it in business.

“Every time I open that door, she's not there,” Oo said.

He doesn't want any other family to get stuck in the maze of cell towers and 911 centers as their loved one is dying.

“I want something brighter to happen where the response time is quicker,” he said.

While location-based routing is a big part of the solution, staffing challenges play another key role. Denver’s 911 director said he doesn’t have enough dispatchers, which is why callers were stuck on hold for so long. Lawmakers are hoping more state funding will also help increase staffing in dispatch centers across Colorado.

Cellphone providers are another part of the problem. Those big companies run the cell towers and could implement new technology to route calls to dispatchers more accurately.

Verizon agreed to make these improvements in the East Colfax neighborhood after Ma Kaing was shot. Other carriers are already in the process of making changes to their systems.

Right now, the Federal Communications Commission doesn’t require those changes, but is considering future mandates to implement this technology.

While Colorado falls behind with location-based routing technology, the head of the state’s 911 program said Colorado has taken the first step towards Next Generation 911. Recently, all but two 911 centers in the state have moved over from analog networks to IP-based networks. This technology allows the public to send text messages, videos and other data to emergency services, not just voice calls.