When I call 911 on my cell phone do you know where I am? Maybe

I was glad to see a USA Today news story over the weekend that details the challenges we have with the national cellular 911 system:  we struggle to find out where you are when you call us in an emergency.  Simply put – the system has challenges.  So it is important to know your location because we will have to ask you once or more than once where, exactly, you are.  highway-sm

The article gives great insight into a known problem.  The 911 system was designed for land line phones but there has been an explosion in the number of cell phones –in fact for the last couple of years we have known that there are more cell phones than land lines in Oakland County.  I realize that your Google apps can use the location data of the phone to find you but 911 doesn’t have access to that.  We get an X/Y coordinate that tells us what cell tower you are near and then we have to search for you based on what “face” of the cell tower your call hit.  Here is what it looks like (I colored out the number)

wireless 911

Here is what the dispatcher’s screen looks like on a wireless 911 call. The address is where the nearest tower is – southwest sector or tower face. Note that the system itself is telling the dispatcher to verify location.  They also need to verify your call back number since we all know that calls drop without warning.

We regularly get calls for other jurisdictions that “bounce” into our center.

Triangle-Cell_Location

A representation of how the system works.

Texting is even worse in terms of location since it uses any entirely different system.  It is definitely not ready for prime time only if you absolutely can’t call us on a voice line.  Complicating things even more is that the wireless 911 system (such as it is) was really only designed for OUTDOOR use not in building which has many more challenges.

This problem has been known for several years–we rely on the FCC and the cell carriers to meet the requirements.  But when they don’t, dispatchers do the best they can by “bidding” and “re-bidding” your cell phone to see if they can find you.  Mostly we can but it is and has been a problem.

USA Today:  911’s Deadly Flaw: Lack of Location Data

You can learn more from the National Emergency Number Association:  NENA .  They have been lobbying the FCC and the telecommunication industry for years about these problems.

So until someone gets the fix done – know where you are and tell us.  If you don’t know or can’t tell us – DON’T HANG UP and we’ll do our very best to find you.

Interesting to me were the comments following the article.  People were willing to have private companies have access to their location information 24x7x365 but expressed concern that the “government” AKA 911 would have that information.  I had never thought of it that way before.  I guess they’ve never needed us before.  I hope you don’t need us –but if you do know that you can help us find you faster if you know your location.  

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