Calling 911 From Your Cellphone? Don’t Assume They’ll Know Exactly Where You Are

Trainer Kevin Lewis (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

Training specialist Kevin Lewis of the Massachusetts 911 department at a call center training screen. (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

One afternoon this fall, as Dr. Ian Sklaver was coaching his 13-year-old daughter’s soccer team, one of the players suddenly collapsed and stopped breathing. Her skin took on a blue pallor, and her pulse was thready, barely there.

Sklaver, who practices at Garden City Pediatrics in Beverly, Massachusetts, immediately started CPR and called 911. We need an ambulance, he told the dispatcher urgently, giving the name of the school he was at and the street it was on.

The dispatcher asked him a question or two, he recalls, “and then asked me the bewildering question of ‘What town are you in?’ And I told them, and then they reconnected me to another person to re-tell the same story again — which seemed to be taking a lot of time away from doing CPR.”

Fortunately, the player was fine — but Sklaver was left mystified.

He has Google Maps, Find-My-iPhone and other free apps, he said, “that can find me to the exact street address. And I call 911, the most important call one could potentially make,” and he’s asked what town he’s in.

Our goal is to bring the 911 system into the 21st century.

– David Furth, FCC

So — if apps like Google Maps and Uber seem to know just where your phone is, why doesn’t the 911 system?

The answer is sadly simple. The 911 system “is based on technology that was developed almost 40 years ago,” said Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association, a nonprofit that focuses on 911 issues.

“And it was designed for a wired-only world where you have your wired phone tethered to a fixed address,” he explained. “Much has changed, obviously, over the years, and today roughly 75 or 80 percent of 911 calls come in from wireless devices.”

Back when cellphones were new, the 911 system could only map which tower had relayed a given call. In recent years, with GPS, the system has gotten much better at locating cellphone calls. But it is still behind commercial apps.

“The system that we’re using now is essentially using 10- to 20-year-old technology that was really good at the time it was implemented but has been overtaken by the technology that’s in smartphones,” said David Furth, deputy chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission.

“The problem is that bringing the 911 system up to the same technological level as all of our smartphones is something that takes time,” he said, “because you can’t just flip a switch and change out the technology overnight.”

Nationwide, there are more than 6,000 centers that take 911 calls, Furth noted, along with a complicated network infrastructure to deliver the cellphone calls and try to locate them to within 50 meters.

“All of that has to be changed” and upgraded, he said, to realize the potential of using smartphone information. That work is under way, Furth said, as part of a national push toward what’s called Next Generation or NG911: “Our goal is to bring the 911 system into the 21st century,” he said.

The technology exists, he added — the trick is to connect the sprawling 911 system to it.

So why doesn’t the FCC just do that? Well, the FCC regulates the wireless carriers that the public uses to call 911, but does not regulate the 911 call centers. Control and funding of those call centers lie at the local and state levels.

The FCC can — and has — set new rules for the carriers to improve cellphone location accuracy in the next few years, but it cannot, say, set a timeline for technology upgrades by 911 call centers. It can only create incentives and call for advances, as FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler did recently in a New York Times editorial: “The 911 System Isn’t Ready For The iPhone Era.” Sounding frustrated, he wrote:

“NG911 links 911 call centers to the latest Internet Protocol-based networks, uses mapping databases and software to route calls and pinpoint the real-time location of 911 callers, and supports voice, text, data and video communication …The bottom line is that NG911 will make our 911 system more accessible and more reliable, and it will dramatically improve emergency response.”

So why don’t the local 911 powers just upgrade?

For one thing, they need money to do it. Wheeler calls on Congress to allot federal money for the big shift.

“You have to understand that to deploy this technology requires funding,” said Brian Fontes of the National Emergency Number Association. And it takes leadership, he said, “at the federal, state and local level to place this as a priority, to ensure that citizens in our nation or within our state or community have available to them the latest and best technology when they place a 911 call.”

So meanwhile, what can you do? Here in Massachusetts, the 911 system is already undergoing a major upgrade this year that will let you text to 911 — and eventually, you’ll be able to send them photos and videos. Massachusetts is one of the more advanced states, Fontes said, but many others are doing the same.

But that new technology won’t immediately improve cellphone location, especially indoor accuracy — because that depends on upgrades by the cellphone carriers, which are expected to take years.

Also in the works: Some Massachusetts towns are opting to take 911 calls from cellphones into their own hands, through a program called Wireless Direct.

Right now, if you call 911 from a mobile phone, your call will be routed to one of just four wireless call centers, and then transferred to a local 911 center. Unless, that is, you’re in Boston or on Nantucket, which have the ability to answer their own 911 cellphone calls.

It’s often a two-step process, said Monna Wallace, director of programs at the Massachusetts 911 department: “If you call 911 from a cellphone, it goes to a wireless 911 center — unless you’re in the city of Boston or you’re on Nantucket. And from there, they will transfer it out to the appropriate department that can provide you with the service that you need.”

But “it is quick. It is very quick,” Wallace emphasized. “They verify your location, they verify the problem, they transfer it.”

Though it may not seem quick if, like Dr. Sklaver on the soccer field, you’re in the midst of an emergency.

Beginning this year, Massachusetts 911 officials say, communities that choose Wireless Direct will be able to screen 911 cellphone calls directly in their own local call centers rather than going through the State Police centers. But Wallace and others caution that Wireless Direct may require more local staffing, and a big emergency could overwhelm a small call center.

On an individual level, 911 experts offer a couple of main tips:

• If your emergency happens indoors and you still have a landline, use it, because then the 911 dispatcher will immediately see the address you’re calling from.

• If you’re calling from a cellphone, don’t assume the 911 dispatcher will be able to see where you are; be prepared to explain your location as best you can — and possibly more than once.

Readers, your experiences calling 911 from a cellphone?

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