LINCOLN — Vital information about the location of an Omaha shooting victim was transmitted to the Douglas County 911 center but may have gotten “hung up” before it got to a dispatcher, a state official said Tuesday.
The Nebraska Public Service Commission is investigating why it took nearly 40 minutes to pinpoint the location of a shooting on Feb. 12 after 911 received a call about the incident that led to a deadly standoff.
Two brothers, John and Jason Edwards, were shot and killed as they were trying to help their sister move out of an ex-boyfriend’s house in northwest Omaha.
One brother made a 911 call from a cellphone after he was wounded but could not provide the address of the house.
The investigation will try to determine why the 911 center was not able to track the location of the call using technology that should have been available on the cellphone and the cell tower that received the call.
Joan Raffety, the commission’s wireless E-911 coordinator, said Tuesday that there’s still a lot of work ahead.
But one question already has been raised.
Raffety said that Verizon, the owner of the cellphone tower that received the 911 call, told her that more-precise “Phase II” information about the location of the call was transmitted to the county 911 center at 10:21 a.m. on Feb. 12.
But, according to Verizon, the locational data was “hung up,” and the 911 dispatcher didn’t receive it. The problem, the company told the PSC, occurred either during transmission via landlines operated by CenturyLink or in equipment at the Douglas County 911 center.
As it was, the 911 dispatcher was provided only older-technology “Phase I” information that gave the location of the cell tower that received the 911 call — a tower that was a mile away from the shooting scene.
Had the dispatcher received the newer-technology information, it would have given emergency responders a location within 300 yards or so from the origin of the call, which might have allowed emergency responders to reach the scene earlier.
Raffety said the information from Verizon had not yet been verified by a technical expert hired by the PSC to investigate the incident, but the issue will be pursued.
The delay in reaching the wounded brothers has prompted a call from state lawmakers to better track the performance of the state’s wireless 911 system and to seek more improvements.
The state has invested $64.8 million into upgrades of 911 call centers and cellphone towers since a 2005 incident in which two 20-year-olds under the influence of methamphetamine died in a blizzard just west of Gretna because they could not provide their location to a 911 dispatcher. Despite the upgrades, officials say that today’s smartphones have better technology to locate someone than a 911 operator.
Raffety said it’s a nationwide problem because 911 systems were built for landline phones, but most of today’s 911 calls come from wireless phones that are mobile and more difficult to trace.
A spokeswoman for Verizon, Meagan Dorsch, said Tuesday that she could confirm the Verizon tower “handled this call correctly,” but could not comment on what happened after that.
Jenny Hansen, director of emergency communications for Douglas County, said locational data could have been blocked for any number of reasons, and the issue was under investigation.
Hansen credited a dispatcher in her office for having the tenacity and smarts to call back the wounded caller, believed to be John Edwards, on Feb. 12 and eventually obtain the name of the shooter.
“Had we not had that, we would have never found that house,” she said.
That information, officials have said, likely prevented Edwards’ sister, Julie, from also being shot.
Hansen added that even if officials had received the more-precise information, that would have only given them a fix within 300 yards of the 911 call. A dispatcher still would have needed to get more precise information to locate the victim, she said.
On Tuesday, Raffety told the PSC board that one of the shooting victims made two 911 calls. The first was a “hang up” by the caller; the second made it to the 911 center, but the locational data provided only gave the location of the cell tower that received the 911 call, she said.
Raffety said the 911 dispatcher who took the call called the man back four times. He didn’t pick up the first call, but answered the last three, providing the name of the shooter in the last call, which allowed the dispatcher to discover the address of the shooting scene and send help.
Hansen said the wounded caller, who was calling from the basement of the house, hung up more than once during the sequence of calls. When asked if that had any connection to what was occurring inside the house, she said she did not know.
PSC officials said it was unclear when its investigation would wrap up. The agency has hired Mission Critical Partners of Southlake, Texas, to investigate the 911 problems. As part of its investigation, the company will make several cellphone calls from the vicinity of the shooting scene to test if area cellphone towers are performing within FCC standards.
The PSC has also requested call records from the Douglas County 911 center to determine how often emergency calls come with the more-precise Phase II locational data.
“There’s a lot of layers to this onion,” said Tim Schram of Gretna, the chairman of the PSC.
In 2015, Douglas County’s 911 center received 536,729 911 calls. Of those, 75.4 percent were from wireless phones, but only 42 percent of those wireless calls initially provided the more-precise Phase II data, Hansen said.
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