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Summer Travel Warning: 911 From Hotel Rooms Sometimes Doesn’t Work

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(credit: CBS) Jessica Dean
Jessica Dean is co-anchor with Chris May of CBS 3’s Eyewitness New...
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By Jessica Dean

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A warning for the summer travel season: Imagine the panic of a fire or emergency, dialing 911, and hearing nothing. A grieving family says that happened to their granddaughter in a hotel room, and they say a simple fix to hotel phone systems might have saved her mother’s life.

“911, what’s your emergency?” were the words a nine-year-old girl expected to hear when she dialed 911 from inside a Texas hotel in December 2013.

“She tried four times,” said her grandmother, DeLonna Hunt.

The girl said instead of an emergency operator, she got static.

“She told us that she did what she supposed to do,” said the girl’s grandfather, Henry Hunt. “And it didn’t work.”

What the girl did not know is the hotel’s phone system requires dialing a “9” first to reach an outside line. Her grandfather says no one taught her that.

“I felt guilty, and then I got mad,” Henry said.

The Hunts’ daughter, Kari Hunt, died in that hotel. Police say Kari’s estranged husband locked her in a bathroom away from her children, then stabbed her to death while her nine-year-old dialed fruitlessly.

“We teach these kids to dial 911 if there’s an emergency, yet we produce phone systems that won’t let you,” Henry said.

This is not an uncommon problem. A hotel industry group, the American Hotel And Lodging Association, says in more than half of the franchised hotels it heard from, a guest cannot dial 911 directly from their room phone. That number is worse among independent hotels: 68 percent.

“Horrific. Horrific numbers,” said Mark Fletcher of phone system supplier Avaya. Fletcher has documented potentially confusing hotel phones nationwide. In one hotel, a sign tells you to dial 5-5 in an emergency. In another hotel, dial 5-5-5-5. In yet another, dial 0 for the operator. In some hotels, there’s a separate emergency button altogether.

Fletcher says most of these confusing phone systems just need reprogramming. How expensive of a problem is it to fix?

“That’s built in, so what’s the cost? It doesn’t cost anything,” Fletcher said. “Or it’s the cost of a service technician to come out for a couple of minutes to turn on a feature.”

That’s what’s been done at hundreds of hotels since Kari Hunt’s murder. Ed Grose of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association says from Center City hotels, you can dial 911.

“We as a hotel community need to make sure that if a guest wants to call 911, that there’s no confusion whatsoever,” said Grose.

The Hunt family started an online petition signed by more than 450,000 people for Kari’s Law, requiring all hotels rooms to have direct 911 service. For Kari, would that have made a difference?

“If he had heard a siren ten seconds earlier, would he have ran? Two seconds? I mean, who knows,” said Henry Hunt.

Some municipalities are moving forward with their own laws. The American Hotel And Lodging Association says it’s making direct 911 a priority for all hotels.

Kari’s Law online petition: http://www.change.org/petitions/let-hotel-phones-dial-911-easily-help-enact-kari-s-law

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