Phone Company Routed 911 Calls To Automated Recording Telling Callers To Dial 911

Although consumers in some areas of the United States can now text message 911 in the event of an emergency, it’s always nice to know that calling a real, live human is still an option. Unless of course it isn’t, which was the case for residents of Caddo County, OK, for several months in 2013.

According to a Federal Communications Commission notice [PDF], Hinton Telephone Company “undermined trust and betrayed its customers” when it continued to route 911 callers to an automated message for three months.

To make matters worse, when residents dialed 911 the automated message directed them to “hang up and dial 911 if the call was an emergency.”

An investigation into the issue began in May 2013 after the Caddo County Public Safety Answering System (PSAP) filed a complaint with the FCC alleging that Hinton was not providing basic 911 service to its customers, specifically not routing messages to the call center but to the automated service.

The ordeal began way back in 2002 when, Hinton tells the FCC, the Caddo County Sheriff’s office declined to accept 911 calls from customers because of a lack of personnel and resources. At that time, Hinton says the only feasible means of routing 911 call was to direct the calls to a live AT&T operator who could then connect callers to a list of county emergency offices.

By January 2013, the county had set up a PSAP and requested Hinton to start routing the 911 calls to the center.

Only that didn’t happen. Instead the calls continued to be routed to the AT&T service. However, by then the live operator had been replaced with an automated message, something Hinton says it was unaware of until May 2013.

Yet, the company didn’t take action to correct the problem until early August; a few days after the FCC ordered Hinton to create a basic 911 solution.

“Hinton apparently failed to use reasonable judgment in routing its Caddo County customers’ 911 calls, willfully and repeatedly violating our rules, and created a significant threat to the life and property of the residents of Caddo County, Oklahoma,” the FCC writes in a notice of liability filing. “This is unconscionable and warrants a substantial penalty.”

For its part, Hinton argued that it was reasonable to continue routing the emergency calls because of “technical challenges that limited its call routing options” and because the restrictions prevent Hinton from providing long distance service or operator service.

The FCC rejected that reasoning and implemented a $100,000 penalty against the company.