Special Report: Cell phones creating problems for 911 centers to locate callers
CHARLESTON, WV (WCHS/WVAH) —
If you ordered a pizza for the big game on your cell phone, chances are the pizza place knew exactly where you were, but when you call 911 it is often not that simple.
Shanell Anderson was about to drown and despite the 911 operator’s best efforts the system couldn’t locate her in time.
Moments later the cell phone connection was lost as Anderson, trapped in her SUV, sank to the bottom of a Georgia Lake.
This is a situation all too real for 911 operations across the country.
"When someone calls 911 that's probably the worst phone call they're ever going to make,” Rick McElhaney said.
McElhaney is the Deputy Director of Communications at Metro 911 in Kanawha County.
"If you ask anybody with a cell phone the top three reasons that they have a cell phone, one of them is probably to call 911 for an emergency,” McElhaney said.
But when 911 was created 49 years ago, it was designed for landlines , and unlike apps on your phone like Uber that automatically pinpoint and send information about where you are, 911 computers rely on the individual cell phone carrier that uses less accurate technology making locating you if you don't know exactly where you are far from perfect.
"Every year gets better but we are at the mercy of the cell phone providers,” McElhaney said.
Metro agreed to let us test the accuracy of three major cell phone providers inside the dispatch center near Southridge..
When tested at Metro 911 AT&T came in right on target, putting us inside the center.
Next we used a Verizon phone.
The location was nearly a mile away but as the dispatcher refreshes the system, she gets a more accurate location, but it takes nearly a minute.
Finally, we used a Sprint phone and it only provides the location of a tower.
"So when it comes in phase 1, it hits the address of a tower which could be a mile or two away."
"The technology exists to make sure that doesn't happen."
Admiral Jamie Barnett is the former FCC Chief of Public Safety and Homeland Security. He's been fighting to get cell phone companies to use more accurate technology for years.
"You pay for the GPS chip that's in your phone and the federal government pays for the GPS satellites. That's not a very expensive solution. Every other solution costs money. I think the carriers like to think well this is good enough, it's not good enough. We need better technology to make sure we can find exactly where you are,” Barnett said.
In the race against time your location is the single most important piece of information these dispatchers need, but to no fault of their own, cell phones are making getting that information much more difficult..
Metro 911 and the Kanawha County Commission worked with Senator Joe Manchin's office in 2015 to support the FCC adopting more stringent requirements for cell phone carriers.
Congress has passed a law requiring 40 percent delivery of location data by the end of this year and 80percent by 2021.