Dallas Police’s 911 Problems and Their Legal Implications

Michael GrossmanAugust 04, 2017 4 minutes

Ordinarily we at the firm wait for news releases about problems or events in the Lone Star State, but because we can't count on them to get their facts about the law straight, we've elected to be proactive with some recent troubles in Dallas.

Over the weekend, two police departments in Dallas suburbs--Plano and Rowlett, to be specific--began having difficulties receiving and responding to emergency 911 calls. In both suburbs, callers are able to dial the service but cannot be heard when a dispatcher answers. Plano's difficulties seem to be focused around people using T-Mobile's cellular service (reminiscent of Dallas' problems earlier this year), while Rowlett's are experienced with various carriers.

Obviously this service interruption can't continue. Vital emergency services aren't available to entire cities' worth of people until the problem is resolved, and I'm sure both police departments are working feverishly to correct the error. In the meantime, though, who could be held responsible if victims are unable to get police assistance?

Could T-Mobile Be Held Liable for the Problems in Plano?

As I mentioned before, this isn't the first time T-Mobile's technology has reportedly caused issues in the Dallas area. From November of last year through the spring of this one, the cellular carrier's service was plagued with "ghost calls" to Dallas' 911 service. In these instances the emergency service received what seemed to be hundreds of hang-up calls, requiring them to call each one back per protocol. This occupied the lines and put many legitimate calls on hold for extended times, keeping many people from receiving badly-needed emergency services. Several fatalities were recorded in this period that were blamed on T-Mobile, which promised to resolve the issues permanently.

Yet here we are. Rowlett's issues don't seem to stem specifically from a particular cellular provider, suggesting they may have internal hard- or software malfunctions, but Plano's problems seem to be exclusively through T-Mobile's service. So can the cellular giant be held legally liable for injuries sustained by anyone who isn't able to get through in an emergency?

It's a little more complicated than a simple yes or no, but it's very possible that T-Mobile could be legally responsible if things come to pass in certain ways:

  1. If the service was down through T-Mobile's own negligence. I'm aware that accidents happen and it's hard to foresee everything, but considering the critical nature of 911, it's not a service that any cellular provider can afford to let slip through the cracks. Given that this will be the second time this year that T-Mobile's network is specifically considered at fault for a connection issue, they might be considered negligent for providing insufficient coverage and/or a failure-prone infrastructure in Dallas. If investigation showed that their network wasn't compromised by any third parties, they're likely going to be on the hook for any deaths or injuries that occur when people can't summon assistance. Of course, if it turns out their network was compromised...

  2. If the service was hacked but T-Mobile could have prevented it. I'm not going to pretend I know what's going on in a hacker's head when he or she breaks into electronic services to fiddle around with the ones and zeroes. Cybersecurity is big business these days, both for the people trying to break it and those trying to protect it (often the same people). Especially in these times where companies and individuals seem to be regularly hacked for ransom, espionage, or simply "the lulz," any cellular carrier should be vigorously protecting itself from within. If T-Mobile is lackluster in its security, then any damages that come from third-party compromise--including people who are irreparably injured because they can't reach the police--might be the company's responsibility.

Think of it like this: If I invite Bob over to my house and then I shoot him, I'm responsible for that. Never mind that he ate the last Pop Tart without asking, I wasn't justified in my response and I am liable for his injury. However, if a stranger kicked in my back door and shot Bob while he was rummaging through my pantry, I'm probably not liable there. After all, I had taken reasonable precautions by closing and locking that door; that's a parallel to a firm using decent cybersecurity--it can be broken through, but available measures were taken to prevent it.

If I had just left the back door swinging wide open, though, that's an invitation to any ne'er-do-well in the area. Because I didn't take available precautions to protect Bob, the onus of responsibility is back on me. Depending on how long the repairs take in Plano (and to a lesser extent Rowlett), T-Mobile might end up accused of negligence for leaving its own doors open enough for unwanted company.

Stay Safe Until This Is Resolved.

Like I said, I'm sure both Plano and Rowlett are working diligently to get this problem resolved. Until it is they have encouraged residents to dial their nearest emergency service provider directly instead of going through 911 dispatchers, so I encourage citizens to Google their nearest police department and hospital and save those numbers. It's a cumbersome workaround, but it's better than nothing until order is restored.

I'm not definitively pointing a finger at mobile carriers (most particularly T-Mobile) for insufficient security. Nobody has suggested that the problems stem from a deliberate attack, and if you need me to restate that I'm no authority on those, go look at that picture from Hackers again. If it isn't a security compromise, though, then it's a technological issue, and a very serious one. The carriers could still very well be liable for injuries to Rowletteers and Planoites who aren't able to reach emergency services, so I hope not too much chaos takes place in the 'burbs in the meantime.