911: Hanging on the Line | Hillman Foundation

Hillman Prizes

2024 Hillman Prize for Broadcast Journalism

Candice Nguyen headshot

Candice Nguyen

NBC Bay Area News

Candice Nguyen: Investigative producer and reporter
Jeremy Carroll: Photographer and editor
Sean Myers: Producer
Alex Bozovic: Editor
Michael Horn: Photographer

Art of Bay Area skyline with audio lines indicating a phone call overlaid on it

In July 2023, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit discovered that Oakland, California, had the longest 911 answering time in the state. 

What started as a data investigation turned into a deep dive, exposing a deeply broken system and an egregious lack of oversight, one that enables the dangerous failures.

In 2020, Oakland’s average 911 answering time was 28 seconds, nearly twice the state and national standard of 15 seconds. Three years later, Oakland’s time had nearly doubled again, to 54 seconds.  

Investigative producer and reporter Candice Nguyen spoke with multiple residents, business owners and the city’s mayor, all of whom said their 911 calls repeatedly had failed to connect or got busy signals. Some reported waiting up to 10 minutes to talk to a dispatcher.

An off-duty police officer was stabbed in the neck just two blocks from police headquarters and, as he lay on the ground bleeding, he called 911 repeatedly on his cellphone. After he failed to connect, a garbage truck operator on the scene also tried and failed. He phoned his supervisor, who finally got through.

When a local auto shop owner called 911 to report a missing person, he was on hold for more than seven minutes. Last year, he found a crushed body in his tow yard and heard a busy signal when he called 911.

The Motorola software and hardware at Oakland’s Emergency Communications Center is 20 years old, so out of date that it is no longer supportable. In 2017, the City Council authorized $12.8 million dollars to upgrade it, and officials confirmed the upgrade has been “perpetually delayed.”

NBC’s initial report prompted the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) to put the City on notice for non-compliance. But when Nguyen expanded her reporting, she found that Cal OES had failed for years, and was still failing, to conduct more than 98 per cent of its fiscal and operational reviews of 911 centers, including Oakland’s. Yet the agency had continued to tell the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) it was completing these reviews, as part of its justification for annually collecting nearly $200 million in 911 fees from Californians’ phone bills.

Nguyen attended multiple State 911 Advisory Board meetings and asked them about their incorrect, and possibly misleading, reports to the FCC. They told her California legally isn’t obligated to accurately report its activities to the federal regulator. 

The mayor announced a $2.5 million dollar investment into the City’s ailing dispatch center. She denied more than a dozen interview requests, but finally sat down with Nguyen and told her the city is hiring more dispatchers, and calls are being picked up faster. But if the city cannot meet a July 26, 2024, deadline set by Cal OES, the agency said it would take away Oakland’s state funding and may shut down the City’s 911 center altogether.

Expanding the investigation, Nguyen turned her attention to 911 emergency texting systems. Deaf customers, victims of domestic violence, and members of other vulnerable groups rely on emergency texting to summon help. She found that 911 texting technology cannot always locate a person as quickly or as accurately as 911 voice calls, and seconds save lives. After the 911 texting report was featured on NBC Nightly News and in Forbes, the FCC announced it would address emergency communication access issues.

We all count on 911 to be there for us in an emergency. NBC Bay Area’s local news reporting team identified a major problem and finally spurred city and state leaders to take action.

Candice Nguyen is an investigative reporter for NBC Bay Area in Northern California. A proud Chinese-Vietnamese American, investigative journalism is Candice’s way of fighting for her community.

Nguyen was born in Oakland and raised in Union City. When she was a child, her father passed away of an aneurysm. She, her mother, and brother suddenly lost their home. Experiencing housing insecurity and watching her young, overwhelmed mother try to navigate social services gave (and still gives) her the grit to tackle injustices plaguing our communities today.

In 2022, Nguyen received national recognition for leading a 10-month-long investigation revealing why a growing number of single fathers are denied access to emergency services, rental housing, and childcare. The five-part series, No Man’s Land, led to police and housing policy reform in multiple Bay Area cities. Nguyen’s work has also exposed police misconduct, fraud, housing, and racial and education equity issues. 

Nguyen joined the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit in February 2020. More than a decade ago, she worked at NBC Bay Area as an intern and writer. The reporters and photographers who first helped her land a job all those years ago, she now calls her friends and colleagues. Shortly after working in Salinas, Calif., Nguyen spent several years reporting in San Diego at XETV and NBC San Diego and was an investigative reporter for KTVU based in Oakland.