It has been just a little over four months since Kari Hunt Dunn, 31, was allegedly stabbed to death by her estranged husband in a Texas motel room. A murder trial is pending, three children have been left without a mother, and Kariʼs parents, sisters and family members are still grieving. But in that short space of time, the Hunt family has embraced a cause and recruited nearly half a million citizens in support of it: a federal mandate they have dubbed “Kariʼs Law,” which would require all telephone systems in hotel rooms across the country to allow callers to direct-dial 911.
Had such a system been in place on Dec. 1, 2013, Kariʼs 9-year-old daughter wouldn’t have been thwarted in her repeated attempts to dial 911 as her mother lay injured from multiple stab wounds. When the little girl’s father, Brad Allen Dunn, had allegedly trapped her mother in the bathroom and begun his attack, she ran to the phone and dialed 911. She tried four times to dial 911, just as she had been told to do by her mother in emergencies. But as with many hotel room phones, pressing “9” was required to get an outside line before 911 could be reached. “We see doubt in her face when we tell her she did what she was supposed to do,” says Hank Hunt, her grandfather. It has been difficult for the little girl to understand why her efforts didn’t work — her family has asked the media to respect her privacy and not reveal her name.
Kari Dunn had taken all three of her children, aged 9, 4 and 3, to the Baymont Inn & Suites, a hotel in Marshall, in east Texas, for a visitation with her husband from whom she had been newly separated. In November, on his Facebook page Brad Dunn had expressed regrets over his wifeʼs desire for a divorce and pledged to fight for his marriage. That fight became real on Dec. 1, ending with Kariʼs death and his briefly fleeing with their 4-year-old daughter. He was quickly found and is being held in jail on a $5 million bond.
Following Kariʼs death, friends set up a Facebook page in her memory and tributes flowed in. One person wrote that something should be done about the inaccessibility of 911 from hotel rooms. Friends then suggested to Hank Hunt that he launch a petition on Change.org, the social change platform, pressing for federal action. “I never, ever, ever thought we would reach half a million signatures,” Hunt says. “We have them from all around the world — Guam, Australia, Johannesburg, Germany, the Ukraine.”
Thousands of Americans have also signed, including Michigan graphic artist and 911 dispatcher Ricardo Martinez, who designed a logo that hotels and motels can post at the front door to show they have direct 911 access.
The petition also attracted the attention of Federal Communications Commissioner Ajit Pai, who pressed the hospitality industry to review the issue. At his behest, the American Hotel and Lodging Association announced in January the formation of a task force to look into the issue. It promptly conducted a survey of the association’s member establishments and found that 45 percent of franchised hotels and motels had direct 911 access, and only 32 percent of independently owned hotels did. “These statistics are alarming. They show that the telephone systems at tens of thousands of lodging properties across this country could fail Americans when it counts,” Pai says. “My message to the hospitality industry has been straightforward: This is not acceptable.”
The commissioner has now begun a new round of surveys, this time to vendors of the multiline telephone systems (MLTS) used in hotels and workplaces, to see whether their products could easily be configured to allow dialers to reach 911 directly. Newer MLTS often can be reprogrammed to allow direct 911 dialing, while older systems need a more complex fix — perhaps switching to using 8 as the access number for an outside line, rather than the traditional 9. The newest systems, which are currently coming online, embrace technologies like GPS to fix the location of the 911 caller.
Some hotel chains have been quick to respond, says Pai, including InterContinental, Marriott and Hilton, which are now working to change their dialing systems and educate their franchise owners about the need to do so. La Quinta is another, according to Hank Hunt.
It’s not just at hotels where the lack of direct-dial 911 has led to tragedy. In January, Pai notes, a customer named Randy Palmer suffered a heart attack in a Henderson Parts Pros auto parts store in Midvale, Utah. A store clerk immediately dialed 911, but the call was routed through the MLTS that served several Henderson stores, along with the corporate office in nearby Salt Lake City. Paramedics rushed to the corporate office, since the MLTS identified it as the location of the call. Help finally arrived at the correct store, but the delay is what likely cost Palmer his life, hospital officials said later. Direct access to 911 and accurate MLTS location information is vital, Pai says, at hotels, in stores and businesses.
Modernizing 911 access will cost money. Hunt urges citizens to press their state and federal lawmakers to use the 911 fees that appear on every telephone bill, both wireless and landline for either direct so-called E911 service (emergency 911) or for improvements to existing 911 services. “Total E911 fees/funds collected from the use of telephones in the United States was $2,322,983,616.36 in 2012,” Hunt states on his petition website. “Total amount spent for E911 or 911 enhancements in the United States was $97,367,543.46 leaving $2,225,616,072.90 unspent.”
Hunt says that some states, including Illinois, divert E911 funds to the general fund, and he says citizens should press their legislators to use the money to fix the 911 infrastructure instead.
Hunt is now taking his message and his campaign for Kariʼs Law across the country, speaking at several state conventions held by the American Public Communications Officials and the National Emergency Number Association. His message is simple: “When a 9-year-old dials 911, they should hear a voice that says ʻ911. Whatʼs your emergency?’”