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911 outages imperil public safety in Cincinnati and elsewhere

Repeated 911 outages in Cincinnati are being blamed on a private company that could also be running the 911 system where you live.
/ Source: TODAY

When Matt Woods saw a possibly drugged driver going down the street "like a bat out of hell," he dialed 911. He says he "called for five minutes — no one would answer."

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Bernie Rademacher had a similar experience when she tried to report a car smashed up against a pole. "I called 911, two, three times, and they never answered. it just rang and rang."

Other Cincinnati residents reported a similar lack of results when dialing 911. Operators eventually called back, but in an emergency, delay could mean the difference between life and death.

According to an internal city document obtained by NBC News, there have been 10 911 outages since June of 2016. The latest one, just this summer, lasted three hours and 30 minutes.

"These 911 systems have been designed and built for landlines," said Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black. "Now we've got the proliferation of cellphones."

But Black blames most of the trouble on a private company called Comtech that runs Cincinnati's 911 system. "We've got a service provider at that level who's not been as reliable and dependable as we've needed them to be," Black said.

The city is now taking over 911 operations itself. But it turns out Comtech is a major player in the nation's 911 system: According to the company's SEC filings, they are "utilized by literally millions of people in more than 30 states."

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The company's website says it supports half of all U.S. wireless 911 calls. And Cincinnati isn't the only place experiencing problems.

In Connecticut, officials replaced Comtech's system with a new company after a three-hour 911 outage hit 52 call-taking sites. And in South Dakota this year, officials temporarily suspended payments to Comtech, saying the company was "slow to fix several recurring problems found within the system."

Comtech did not respond to multiple calls and emails from NBC News, so TODAY national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen paid a visit to their New York headquarters. The company's CFO disappeared behind closed doors, and a receptionist came out to say "they are not coming out."

Experts say you should program your local police and fire department phone numbers into your cellphone: That way, if you're ever in an emergency and can't get through to 911, you can call the police and fire stations directly.

To suggest a topic for an upcoming investigation, visit the Rossen Reports Facebook page.