Some 911 systems can’t find you in an emergency due to dated technology

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911 Operator

I’ve blogged before on investigations that the Today show has done in the past.  As usual, this was a topic that I did not know about:  some 911 systems can’t find you in an emergency.

Jeff Rossen reported on a tragedy that occurred back in December. It was after 4 a.m. on a foggy morning  when Shanell Anderson was heading to work when she accidentally drover her SUV in a large pond.  Her Nissan Xterra began filling with water, its doors held shut by hundreds of pounds of water pressure. Anderson had nothing to break the windows with, but she did have a cellphone. She dialed 911.  When she called, she informed the dispatcher that she was in a car in a lake.  When the dispatcher asked for the address, Ms. Anderson told her on Fairway.  The dispatcher asked again for the address and Anderson said Fairway and Batesville.  Unfortunately, the dispatcher informed Anderson that she didn’t have a street called Fairway.  It was at that point, Anderson told the dispatcher that she was losing air very quickly.   It took first responders nearly 20 minutes to get to the location and almost another nine minutes to find Anderson’s car 8 feet underwater. By the time they dove into the lake, broke into the completely submerged SUV and removed her from it, she was unresponsive.  Paramedics were able to restart Anderson’s heart, but she ultimately died a week later.

The reason it took responders so long to find Anderson is because she was sinking into a pond in the next county. Her desperate call to 911 was picked up by a cell tower in Fulton County, but the pond she was trapped in was actually in Cherokee County. The 911 dispatcher who took her call couldn’t find Anderson’s location because the map on her system only showed Fulton County, where she worked — not nearby Cherokee County, where Anderson was.

The 911 center Anderson’s call was routed to is one of many around the country that still rely on dated cell tower technology instead of something as widely used as Google Maps. Wireless 911 calls get routed to the wrong call centers so often that many dispatchers have dedicated buttons to transfer callers to neighboring departments.  Brendan Keefe, chief investigative reporter for NBC Atlanta affiliate WXIA, was the first to report on the problem with the 911 system there. His report prompted NBC News and Gannett-owned news outlets across the country to launch their own investigations into the issue. “It has one fatal flaw; it stops at the city line,” Keefe said of Atlanta’s 911 system. “If you hit a cell tower outside their jurisdiction, they don’t know where you are.”

First Coast News also did an investigation and found that 911 dispatchers in Northeast Florida also have the same problem.  The news agency described the problems with 911 centers trying to find you but being unable to do so.  The 911 system was designed for landline telephones, transmitting the call and  location instantly over a hard-wired connection.  Today’s cellphone system does not automatically send location data when you dial 911. The phones turn on location capabilities automatically when you dial 911. After the call comes in, the dispatcher’s computer transmits a digital request to the cellphone network seeking the phone’s location. The data exchange can take seconds or even minutes. Sometimes, it doesn’t return a location at all.”It is now easier than ever for victims to reach 911, but harder than ever for responders to reach them,” said St. John’s County Sheriff David Shoar, writing to the FCC in November as president of the Florida Sheriffs Association.  The most high-tech 911 centers automate the process, digitally requesting the location every few seconds. If the system can’t locate the device, cellphone carriers’ systems will use nearby towers to estimate. These methods sometimes do net location information. Often, 911 calls end before that digital back-and-forth yields a specific location for emergency responders.  In short, your phone’s apps are connected directly to the GPS unit inside the phone. The 911 system relies on getting that information through a relay process.

In Florida, there is no law requiring 911 call centers to track how many of their calls are received with exact location data.  The data that is available, comes from county 911 centers that track the data on their own. No law requires them to.   First Coast News obtained data from Clay and St. Johns counties.  In Clay County, the 911 operations center reports 61% of the calls do not initially have the callers exact location.  In St. Johns, 50% do not initially have that exact location.  Centers for Duval and Nassau county were not able to report how many calls come in with the exact location.  The state’s 911 board says it wants more calls to have exact locations provided to 911 operators.

Responsibility for fixing the problem falls to the Federal Communications Commission.  They are working with the four largest cellphone carriers to do their best to address the problem.  recently, they agreed on a new federal rule to require carriers to steadily increase the percentage of cellphone calls to 911 that transmit location data.  The rules, call for delivery of location data for 40% of cellphone calls by 2017 and 80% by 2021.

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