A teenage girl may have died at her own hand. Could Sprint have prevented it? A commentary cross-posted from Chronicles of Dissent.
The teenager called a suicide hotline for help. She had stabbed herself and taken drugs in an attempt to kill herself, and by the time she called the hotline, she was weak and speaking very slowly. The experienced counselor knew that time would be of the essence but could only manage to get the caller’s first name and a description of what she had taken and done to herself while she started an emergency trace. Getting any answers from the teen was brutally slow as she was already starting to slip into unconsciousness. The teen said that she didn’t want to die alone and that she wanted her mother, who was at work, but as she slipped in and out of consciousness, she never gave the counselor the mother’s phone number. The counselor tried to keep the teen on the phone while her colleague followed through on the emergency trace.
It took precious minutes, but Verizon, who provides the emergency trace service, was able to give the counselor the teen’s cell phone number and tell her that it was a Sprint number. The counselor immediately called Sprint and identified herself, but that’s when she hit a wall in her attempt to save the teen’s life. Sprint confirmed that it was one of their numbers, but they wouldn’t give her the address to go with the phone number and they refused to call the police or 911 to request an ambulance. They said to have the police call them. But since she didn’t know what county or state that cell phone number came from, she had no idea which police to contact and Sprint didn’t tell her anything.
The counselors contacted their nearest county police and gave them the information they had. The police ran a trace on the cell phone number and were able to give them the address that went with that phone number, but it was in another state and they did not have the phone number of the police department for the area.
As more precious minutes ticked by, the counselors tried every possible emergency number they could find to reach 911 or the police in that area. Finally they reached a dispatcher, identified themselves, explained the situation, and crossed their fingers that the police would get there in time.
But it would be another 22 minutes before the patrol car arrived after it was dispatched, and yet 5 more minutes before the ambulance arrived.
The building turned out to be an inner city project. Unable to give the dispatcher any apartment number or any additional information, the senior counselor was depressed to learn that after only nine minutes of searching a 14-story building, the police stopped searching and left.
Did the teen die last night? I don’t know. But was Sprint right to refuse to call the police or emergency services when notified by an established hotline that there was an emergency and that it was life or death? Should Sprint have at least informed the counselors what city and state they needed to contact? Did Sprint have the apartment number in their files that might have enabled police to locate the teen? Even providing the last name might have helped police locate the right apartment. Should Sprint have provided whatever information they had to the emergency counselors or agreed to call emergency dispatch themselves?
We want businesses to protect our privacy and our data, but did privacy protection go too far that night?