Tens of thousands of hotels don't allow guests to directly reach emergency services when they dial 911, according to a national survey taken after a 9-year-old girl couldn't call for help while her mother was being stabbed to death in a Texas motel.
The killing of Kari Hunt Dunn in an East Texas hotel room spurred a petition that has garnered more than 440,000 signatures demanding hotels and motels be required to enable the direct dialing of 911. Many hotels require callers to dial "9" before 911 or have some other system, such as calling first to the front desk, which advocates say can lead to panic and confusion in an emergency.
The petition got the attention of Federal Communications Commission member Ajit Pai, whose office on Monday announced the results of a survey done after Dunn's death by the American Hotel & Lodging Association. The industry group found that about 45 percent of franchised hotels and motels and 32 percent of independent hotels have direct 911 dialing.
Independent owners and franchisees comprise the "vast majority" of the estimated 53,000 such properties in the U.S., including hotels using a brand name, Pai said.
"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 said in a statement released by his office. "My message to the hospitality industry has been straightforward: This is not acceptable."
Pai said he was starting a new round of surveys, this time to vendors of multi-line telephone systems used in hotels and workplaces, to see whether their products could easily be configured to allow dialers to quickly reach 911.
He also noted that the InterContinental, Marriott and Hilton hotel chains were among those now working to change dialing systems and educate franchise owners about the need to do so.
The National Emergency Number Association, a group representing 911 call takers and industry professionals, said it continued to support measures including automatic notifications to hotel management anytime a guest calls for help and a ban on routing 911 calls to a front desk.
"The 911 community stands ready to work with Congress, the FCC, and all stakeholders in drafting and implementing new policies to fix this problem," the group said in a statement.
Dunn's estranged husband, Brad Dunn, is accused of stabbing his wife during a visit with their three young children in December 2013. Police said the family was in a motel room at a Baymont Inn in Marshall, Texas, when he attacked his wife in the bathroom.
Their 9-year-old daughter ran to the phone and tried to call 911 -- four times -- but she couldn't get through. The girl eventually ran into a hallway and found someone in an adjacent room who could call 911.
The hotel is operated by a franchisee, though Wyndham Hotel Group owns the Baymont brand name.
Kari Hunt Dunn's father, Hank Hunt, started the online petition for what he called "Kari's Law," asking that federal government require hotels and motels to use "8" as a prefix to dial an outside line instead of "9." The change.org petition had nearly 441,300 signatures as of Tuesday morning.
"It's very, very encouraging," Hunt said Monday. "The number of people that seem to be taking an interest in getting this done is increasing at a rate that we weren't expecting."