OC Watching Kari’s Law Progress; All Hotels Could Be Required To Offer Direct 911 System

OCEAN CITY — A potential mandate, stemming from a tragedy in Texas, for sweeping changes in the telephone operating systems of lodging establishments could come with major consequences for Ocean City hoteliers.

On Dec. 1, 2013, Kari Rene Hunt Dunn met her estranged husband in a Texas hotel room so he could visit the couple’s three children, ages nine, four and three. During the visit, Brad Dunn forced Kari Dunn into a bathroom and began stabbing her. The couple’s 9-year-old daughter picked up the guestroom phone and dialed 911, just as she was taught to do. However, the guestroom’s antiquated phone system required the child to first dial a 9 to reach an outside line.

The child did not know the procedure and attempted several calls to 911 to no avail, and Kari Dunn ultimately perished from the attack when help never came. The incident could have occurred anywhere in a hotel or motel where a number is required to be dialed first before reaching an outside line, including here in Ocean City with its numerous hotels, motels and lodging facilities.

The incident triggered a multi-level investigation on several fronts to explore how it could be avoided in the future. It triggered a petition drive launched by the victim’s father asking the hotel and lodging industry to study the many phone systems its facilities utilize and make the necessary changes or upgrades to ensure it doesn’t happen again. The petition also calls for Congress to pass legislation called Kari’s Law, which would mandate the changes. By Thursday morning, the petition had nearly 443,000 signatures.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been following the issue closely and in January directed the AHLA to survey members to find out how many had direct dialing capability for 911 and how many required callers to first dial 9 or another number to reach an outside line. The AHLA completed the survey, the results of which were released this week. FCC member Ajit Pai, whose office has been monitoring the issue, made an impassioned speech in front the House Appropriations Committee this week after reviewing the results of the survey.

“Kari’s 9-year-old daughter did exactly what every child is taught to do during an emergency,” Pai told the House Committee this week. “She picked up the phone and dialed 911. The call didn’t go through so she tried again and again and again. All in all, she dialed 911 four times but she never reached emergency personnel. Why? Because the hotel’s phone system required her to dial 9 to get an outside line.”

Pai told the committee the tragedy could have been avoided if the motel where the incident occurred had an updated telecommunications system.

“When Americans dial 911, they expect and deserve to reach emergency personnel who can assist them in their time of need,” he said. “Unfortunately, a recent tragedy shows that this is not always the case.”

Pai announced the results of a survey conducted after the tragedy in Texas by the AHLA. The industry leader found just 45 percent of franchised hotels and motels and 32 percent of independent hotels have direct 911 dialing.

“These statistics are alarming,” he said. “They show that the telephone systems at tens of thousands of lodging properties across this country could fail Americans when it counts. My message to the hospitality industry has been straightforward: This is not acceptable.”

Closer to home, the resort business community is keenly aware of the incident, and the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (OCHMRA) discussed it extensively at its most recent board meeting, OCHMRA Executive Director Susan Jones said this week.

“It’s a very tragic situation for that little girl indeed,” she said. “I actually read the letter from the AHLA to our board last week. Some hotels already have the direct dial in place and some don’t. Everyone is definitely concerned.”

It is uncertain just how many lodging establishments in Ocean City currently have direct dial and how many do not. The types of telecommunications systems in place are as varied as the age, size and locations of the hotels and motels themselves. One thing learned this week is that all of the more modern properties have direct dial out capabilities.

For example, the Princess Royale on 91st Street does and has for several years, according to General Manager Jon Tremellen. However, Tremellen said it is uncertain just how many of the older properties in the resort do. He said the lack of direct dial at some Ocean City properties could pose problems if not updated.

“What’s happened in the past is a person usually had to dial a 7 or a 9 to get an outside line,” he said. “In a situation where somebody needed medical attention, the person calling for help might be unaware they needed to dial a number first just to get out. In some cases, they might be aware of the need to dial a 9 or a 7 when making dinner reservations or ordering a pizza, but in a dire emergency, they might not remember to do that.”

Tremellen said he hoped the increased awareness sparked by the tragic incident in Texas and the subsequent petition drive and FCC study might spur a voluntary drive to get all lodging facilities up to date.

“It’s not a law yet,” he said. “This could be the catalyst for everyone reassessing their systems though. The newer properties, maybe seven years old or so, have the switches that allow guests to dial 911 directly in an emergency. Some of the older properties might not have that.”

Carousel Hotel and Resort Managing Partner Michael James, whose company has been acquiring other hotels in and around the resort area, said all of his properties have direct dial capabilities, but was uncertain if most others in Ocean City have made the upgrades.

“The switches in our rooms and all over the properties allow guests to dial directly to the authorities in an emergency and have for years,” he said. “Any phone on the property can dial directly to authorities in an emergency.”

James said in his 30-plus years in the hotel business, he could not recall a problem with a guest attempting to dial out directly to 911. He did say, however, that there have been instances when guests have inadvertently called 911 because they had to first dial a 9 to reach another outside line.

“We haven’t had any instances where guests have not been able to dial 911 directly,” he said. “We’ll occasionally get guests that make an error and the police show up and told us they got a call from Room 403, for example. Most often, in turns out to be user error and there isn’t any problem.”

For its part, the AHLA is taking the issue seriously and has put together a panel to disseminate the data and come up with a plan to ensure all of their member facilities have direct dial capability for 911.

“The safety and security of our guests and employees is paramount to hoteliers,” said Katherine Lugar, president and CEO of AHLA. “The ability for guests to dial 911 directly from a guestroom is a top priority and AHLA has moved quickly to convene a task force of more than 50 lodging executives with expertise in telecommunications and security to address this goal.”