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If You Call 911 From A Cell Phone, Can A Dispatcher Find You? Maybe Not.

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Emergency dispatchers and advocates say that wireless carriers are not using technology that allows them to pinpoint the location of people making 911 calls from cell phones.
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Emergency dispatchers and advocates say that wireless carriers are not using technology that allows them to pinpoint the location of people making 911 calls from cell phones.

If you call 911 in D.C. from a cell phone, you might expect that even if you don't leave your address, the dispatcher could use your phone's GPS capability to pinpoint your location. But one group says that's not happening in most cases.

According to data collected by the Find Me 911 Coalition, which advocates for tougher rules on wireless carriers for locating people making emergency calls, only 10 percent of all calls in D.C. to 911 from cell phones during the first half of 2013 included the type of information that would allow a dispatcher to find the caller if they didn't leave an address.

"Even though there’s a requirement for the carriers to deliver a good location to the 911 center, that’s only happening in 1 in 10 wireless 911 calls in the District of Columbia," says Jamie Barnett, a former FCC official who leads the group. "It's shocking."

According to data his group obtained from the Federal Communications Commission, of the 385,000 calls made to 911 from cell phones D.C. in the first half of 2013, only 39,000 included Phase II information, which includes the longitude and latitude of the person making the call. (Phase I info, which is reported to the dispatcher first, includes the closest cell phone tower, but that can be within a mile of the caller.) Some carriers were worse than others: only 2.6 percent of AT&T calls included the info, while 23.3 percent of Sprint calls did.

The D.C. Office of Unified Communications, which runs 911 and 311 in the city, handles some 1.5 million emergency calls per year.

Barnett says that wireless carriers are still operating under old rules and with old technology that predates the widespread use of cell phones, and as a consequence they don’t always have accurate location information — especially if the caller is in a building in a densely populated area.

"More and more we’re communicating… all of our communications [are] either inside — about 64 percent of all 911 calls originate indoors. And even in urban canyons, between buildings, if you’re in a brick or concrete building, sometimes you won’t get a good GPS signal, and that’s the problem," he says.

"As long as you’re out in a field, 911 generally can find you. But when that doesn’t work... it’s literally across the nation millions of calls a year where if you can’t identify where you are, 911 cannot find you," he adds. (The Find Me 911 Coalition received initial funding from TruePosition, which produces technology that could locate a 911 caller indoors.)

Speaking on WAMU 88.5's The Kojo Nnamdi Show in January, John Crawford of the Office of Emergency Management in Arlington, Virginia, explained that the issue comes into play when calls are made from buildings.

"If they're in a high-rise, for instance, up on the 7th, 10th, 13th floor, we get a phone call, we may be able to know what... where they are, the address of the building, but where in the building are they? That's really critical. And in this business, seconds and minutes are critical to get to patients or victims of, you know, criminal activity and so forth," he said.

The issue was taken up by the FCC in February, where Steve Souder, the director of Fairfax County's Department of Public Safety Communications, testified in favor of new rules that would require carriers to adopt technology that would allow dispatchers to more quickly find people making 911 calls from cell phones.

"Of late, beginning about last year, the 911 community began to realize that maybe some of that progress had slipped a little bit," he said, referring to work the FCC had done with carriers in the 1990s to improve accuracy of location information. "The level of accuracy and the speed with which it took to get that accuracy was diminishing in time rather than becoming quicker."

Wireless carriers have pushed back on the claims, saying that location information improves when dispatchers wait for a better signal from the phone, a process known as a re-bid. The D.C. Office of Unified Communications, which manages 911 and 311 in D.C., did not return a request for comment on the issue or whether dispatchers re-bid calls to get more accurate location information. But even if they do, that process can take up to 30 seconds, which Barnett and others say is too long.

At its February meeting, the FCC approved an emergency rule requiring carriers to adopt new technology to improve location information from people calling 911 from cell phones. The vote was unanimous, though two commissioners expressed concerns over individuals being tracked and over whether the FCC was forcing carriers to jump ahead of the technology that's available.

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