If you've had an accident, such as a car wreck, or if you think someone's had a stroke, what's the first thing you do? Call 9-1-1. It's what we've been taught to do. It's what we've taught our kids to do. The problem is that, if you're calling from a cell phone, 9-1-1 dispatchers might have a hard time finding you.
There are several reasons that make it hard for emergency dispatchers to locate someone who's calling from a mobile phone:
- First, unlike landline phones, which are assigned to a specific address, cell phones, which are mobile, aren't assigned to any particular address, which makes them more difficult to trace.
- Second, cellular calls often transmit to 911 dispatchers showing the location of the cell tower through which the call was routed, not the location of the mobile phone itself, from which the call was made. This enables the dispatcher to determine a caller's general vicinity, but without the caller being able to give his/her specific address, the dispatcher may not be able to find their exact location.
- Finally, the cell tower that your phone pings to, or is routed through, might be a tower located in an adjacent town. If so, your call will automatically connect to the 911 center in the pinged cell tower's town, not the town from which you are calling. If you're unable to give a complete address of where you are, then the operator will start looking for your location in the town of the pinged cell tower, instead of the town from where you're actually calling. This can significantly delay a rescue.
That's exactly what happened to a young Sandy Springs, Georgia woman last month who called 9-1-1 when she accidentally drove into a pond and was trapped inside of her sinking SUV. She gave the 911 operator her partial location, but because her call got routed through a cell phone tower in the neighboring town of Fulton County, instead of Cherokee County where her accident occurred, the Fulton County operator had difficulty locating her and was unable to dispatch help in time to save her.
This is a growing concern in states all over the country. With more than 70% of 911 emergency calls now coming from wireless callers, this presents a huge problem for the 911 emergency system. Recognizing the problem, the FCC and major cellular companies are working together to improve the accuracy of the location information transmitted from cellular 911 callers. Ultimately, carriers will be required to provide the longitude and latitude of a cellular 911 call, regardless of who the caller's carrier is. These rules call for carriers to deliver location data for 40% of its cellphone calls by 2017 and 80% by 2021.
If you're in an emergency situation, and you have to use a cell phone to call 911, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind:
- Give the exact address of where you're located
- If you're in a multi-story building, provide the operator with the number of the floor you're on and your exact location within the building (i.e., in a closet, the elevator, etc.)
- Give the operator your cell phone number so they can call you back if you get disconnected
- If you're inside a building but can go outside to call then do so, it's difficult for dispatchers to trace your whereabouts when you're inside of a building
- Call 9-1-1 centers, don't text them. Most don't have the capability to accept texts.
- Create a contact in your cell phone labeled “ICE”, which stands for In Case of Emergency. This lets people know who to call (i.e., parents, spouse, etc.) in an emergency situation.
Emergency situations are stressful enough. Thinking you might not be helped in time only compounds the situation. Remember to try to stay calm, give operators as much information as possible, and if you have a choice, call 911 from a landline phone instead of a cellular one.