2022 | Government

Here’s what to know about the county’s 911 automated callback feature

Caller encounters new system when struggling to reach 911

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This story was updated at 4:50 p.m. on May 11, 2022, to include comments from Amanda Bryans

When Amanda Bryans figured out that her husband was having a stroke, she immediately called 911. But instead of speaking to someone, she heard something that “sounded like a fax tone,” the Wheaton resident posted April 18 on the neighborhood platform Nextdoor.

“I hung up and my phone rang with a message to push 1 if I had an emergency. I pushed 1 and got cut off,” Bryans wrote. “I repeated this whole sequence this until on the 4th try, I was connected to a 911 operator. The ambulance arrived shortly thereafter. The whole thing was unnerving but delayed he’ll only by 3-4 minutes. I guess the message is that if you need help, you may need to repeat 911 call until you get through.”

After Bryans’ message surfaced, Bethesda Beat contacted Cassandra Onley, the director of Montgomery County’s Emergency Communications Center, to find out what had happened with Bryans’ call. Onley explained that Bryans experienced the 911 system’s automatic abandoned callback feature, which gives emergency callers the option to still request services even if they become disconnected or hang up. The feature was implemented a year ago as part of an upgrade to the 911 call system, according to Onley.

“If someone calls 911 and they hang up before the call is answered, it still hits our switch,” she said. “As long as there’s a valid phone number the system will call it back and it will be a pre-recorded message saying if you need emergency services press 1. If you don’t need any services press 2.”

Bryans told Bethesda Beat on Tuesday that when she called 911 she got a fax tone, upsetting her. On her fourth call to 911, she reached an operator.

Bryans said her husband Gerard Miskelly needs a heart transplant, and the delay likely didn’t change the outcome for him. But she wonders if it would have made a difference had he had a more serious condition.

“If he had been in cardiac arrest or if it had been a different kind of stroke, those 2 or 3 minutes make a difference,” she said.

Bryans said she posted on Nextdoor because she wanted everyone to know about her experience.

“I’m really concerned, what happens if you can’t speak or if you panic?” she said.

Bryans, on Tuesday wasn’t aware that it was possible to send text messages to 911. She said she is grateful for the feature and thinks more people should be educated on the 911 system capabilities.

“If [calling 911] isn’t working the way it should, we should know what the alternatives are,” she said.

Onley said depending on how busy other 911 call takers are, it’s possible that the callers will get a recording asking them not to hang up and telling them their call will be answered by the next available specialist.

“If the call hits, the person hangs up and the system calls them back, and they hit the button to go to queue, it could be a matter of seconds [before] it’s answered by the call taker. If we’re busy, it just depends,” she said.

Onley said it’s unusual for a 911 caller to call four times before reaching someone. After Bethesda Beat notified the county call center about Bryans’ experience, Onley said staff at the emergency call center made sure their equipment was working because they hadn’t received any complaints.

“Once we got notified about this, we tested all of our phone lines and every call went through,” she said.

Another user on Nextdoor who lives in Silver Spring complained of having his 911 calls sometimes redirected to Prince George’s County instead of the Montgomery call center. Onley said the redirection of 911 calls can happen for any county resident who lives near a neighboring jurisdiction, such as the District of Columbia or Prince George’s and Frederick counties.

“It’s dependent on the cell towers, what device the user has. It could even be weather conditions, how overloaded the systems are that day, GPS coordinates… . I mean it depends on [different factors],” she said.

Onley noted that Maryland is in the process of transitioning to the Next Generation (NextGen) 911 system. The technology, according to the state’s 911 website, will help improve the location accuracy of calls received from cellphones, better ensure security of calls and control call congestion.

Onley said anyone who is experiencing problems calling 911 should let county officials know. She hopes that as the implementation of NexGen 911 continues, there will be fewer redirected calls.

“It’s really contingent upon that [type of cellphone technology someone has] as we evolve with technology,” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com