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Flaw in 911 System Led to Princeton Caller Being Disconnected

A Princeton resident spotted someone breaking into his neighbor’s car last week, and immediately called 9-1-1. He was transferred to a number that had been disconnected. He called 9-1-1 a second time and was able to be connected to a dispatcher, but the burglar escaped before police arrived.

The resident referred the issue to Councilwoman Jo Butler, who then reached out to Police Capt. Nick Sutter. The issue was promptly investigated, and Sutter reviewed all the 9-1-1 call logs and the resident’s conversations with dispatchers.

It turns out that there was a flaw in the 9-1-1 system. The call from Walnut Lane in Princeton was routed to  Hamilton, then to the old Princeton Borough emergency dispatch number, which was disconnected after the Princeton Borough and Princeton Township police departments merged as part of consolidation.

According to Princeton officials, all of the law enforcement and emergency management jurisdictions throughout the state were notified of the merger of the Princeton Township and Princeton Borough Police departments in 2012, prior to consolidation.

“For some unknown reason, the state agency responsible for emergency telecommunications did not remove the old Princeton Borough 9-1-1 number from all state systems and registries,” Sutter said.

Some law enforcement jurisdictions still had the old Princeton Borough number in their systems, as well as the current number.

“The state Office of Emergency Communications was made aware of the issue as soon as we traced the problem after the resident’s notification to us,” Sutter said. ” We notified each police department in Central New Jersey. We also contacted Verizon and advised them of the problem. They will continue to work with the state agency.”

At first, officials thought  the call was an overflow call that was routed to the disconnected number. If a local dispatch unit is busy with multiple calls, the overflow call will be forwarded to another available dispatcher in the geographic area. If that dispatcher is unable to talk the call immediately, the system will transfer the call to another unit until an available responder is found.

But in the case last week, the call was made from a cell phone and it appears it was directly routed to the Hamilton Township Police Department first. The Hamilton Police Department then forwarded the call to the Princeton Borough Police Department number, which is now disconnected.

“We are still not sure why the cell call went to Hamilton,” Sutter said. “One possible scenario is that the call bounced off another cell tower because a local tower was busy, and that is why it was originally routed to Hamilton. This is the first complaint the police department has received from a 9-1-1 caller, and there has not been a problem reported to us before or since the incident.”

The issue of where 9-1-1 calls are routed has come up a few times over the last 14 months. In January of 2013, a resident told the Princeton Council about a fire that occurred on Edwards Place in Princeton in December,  right after the police department was merged. The resident, a fire company volunteer, said  a  9-1-1 caller reported being disconnected. The resident questioned whether the call has mistakenly been rerouted to Princeton University’s public safety department. The university has no record of such a call and said Edwards Place was not in their jurisdiction.

Since the incident, Councilwoman Jo Butler has been concerned about who answers which calls. She called 9-1-1 on her cell phone from the new Dinky train station last fall to see who responds to calls at that location, Princeton Public Safety or the Princeton Police. The town referred the case to the Mercer County Prosecutor, claiming she made a false 9-1-1 call. The prosecutor did not charge Butler.

At a September council meeting, Butler asked whether calls made from a cell phone are sent to the town’s police or the university’s public safety department. Princeton police lieutenant Chris Morgan said the university’s public safety department would get the call. Kristin Appelget, the university’s director of community and regional affairs, said she thought a call to 911 from a cell phone, made from the parking lot, would be directed to the town.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • Sandra J. Bierman

    Peope criticized Jo Butler, but, obviously sh was going in the right direction. Finally, perhaps all parties involved can figure out what is needed to do, after all, we are talking about 911 calls.

  • JustTelling

    Actually the question Jo asked was relating to who receives a cell phone 911 call that was near the campus; the police dept. or the campus police. This was not that type of issue. This was an error by someone from the NJ office of Emergency communications that failed to change the transfer from the old Princeton boro to the new “Princeton”, so when a nearby town tried to transfer a call from their town to “Princeton boro”, it failed to go through.

  • Brett Borowski

    Who thought disconnecting the borough line was a good idea?

    Calls to that line should have gone through – to accommodate the emergency first – and been flagged so the caller (whether a local resident or another PSAP) could later be advised of the obsolete number.

    Cell phone 911 calls can get bounced to PSAPs much further away than Hamilton. NYC, for instance.

    We won’t know if this problem is fully solved until the Princeton dispatch phone number has been verified at all PSAPs that could end up with a Princeton call.

    Furthermore, I would not assume that all dropped/”alternatively”-routed 911 calls have been reported. The emergency at hand tends to dominate one’s mind. In the moment, it’s not always clear to a caller that the difficulty in getting through to the appropriate dispatcher is a system flaw that, if reported, can be addressed.

  • JustAsking

    You mean that Jo Butler was correct in asking questions last year? And she got results this year? Go Jo!!!

  • Pat Palmer

    Jo Butler is asking the good questions. It’s great that this problem got resolved. Good on all involved.

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