911 is a literal lifeline for folks in nearly any kind of trouble imaginable. Calling 911 instantly connects you to emergency dispatch centers across more than 98% of the U.S. And 911 really gets used! An estimated 240 million calls are made to 911 in the U.S. each year. Among technology stories, it is indeed one of the great successes.
But what happens when 911 doesn't work?
Intrado Inc., a Colorado-based company, provides many states with their call routing infrastructure for emergency services. On one April day this year, computer software distributed by Intrado Inc. caused calls to emergency services in North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, California, Florida and Washington state to be dropped.
The FCC released a report that found a shocking bug that blocked 911 access for 11 million people. The FCC says the bug was "... preventable. But it was not." Why couldn't people get in touch with emergency services as they needed them? One simple computer code mistake.
The most shocking thing that the FCC discovered about the outage? The problem was entirely fixable.
The company just didn't identify it for six hours while call after call to emergency services was dropped.
The error in Intrado Inc.'s code worked like this:
Normally, every 911 call receives a unique ID number. The computer stopped assigning the unique call numbers. Soon, the system simply dropped new calls. During the glitch, nearly 7,000 911 calls did not go through.
When it comes to calling 911, you definitely never want to doubt whether or not your call will get through. The FCC thinks so too, and ended its report with:
As the Nation transitions to new methods of communications, we need to take care to ensure that our inherent trust in the 911 system does not get lost in that transition.
And that's really what we're dealing with here. It's not about whether or not a simple coding mistake is forgivable, it's an issue of trust. Let's hope that companies take the hint and start spending a little more time testing their systems before risking lives on whether or not they work.
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