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When you call 911, you might expect to be answered immediately. But as we’ve learned in the last few months, our local emergency call system doesn’t come with guarantees. In fact, 911 has major limitations beyond those well-publicized delays in the answering of calls.
The 911 call taker might not be able to locate you even if you have a state-of-the-art phone, and there’s no simple way to figure out where you are in a building with more than one floor. You can just forget about texting 911 for now, even if you’re in a situation — like a home break-in or a mass shooting — where it’s crucial to hide and be quiet. And you may get put on hold because someone accidentally “butt-dialed” 911.
Here are some questions and answers about the limits of 911.
Doesn’t 911 Always Know Where Callers Are?
Not if you call from a cell phone. “In California, more than half of cellphone calls didn’t transmit location to 911 from 2011 to 2013, and it’s getting worse,” USA Today reported last year. In 2014, “about 12.4 million, or 63%, of California’s cellphone calls to 911 didn’t share location.”
How can this be? After all, GPS-equipped phones always know exactly where we are. That’s why we can rely on Waze to give us directions, Uber and Lyft to find us and give us a ride, and dating apps to alert us to the presence of nearby hotties.
But the location data in your phone doesn’t always make its way to the folks at 911 due to technological limitations at each step from phone to cell tower to 911 center.
For example, your phone may only tell 911 that you’re near a cell tower, and it may not even be the nearest one. As a result, your call could go to the wrong place. “You’re like, ‘Wait a minute, I didn’t call Carlsbad. I’m in Oceanside,’” said Ryan Dedmon, spokesman for the 911 Wellness Foundation, which supports 911 staff members.
But… Uber Can Do It, Right?
Yes. There’s a big difference between Uber and cell phone companies like Sprint and AT&T.
Uber, Tinder, Google Maps & Co. don’t work unless their software can figure out where you are and transmit the information accurately. No location means no location-based app means no revenue. Their survival is predicated on being able to find you.
Cell phone companies don’t have the same incentive to make a location connection with 911, so they’ve lagged. They are moving toward improving their systems, but not very quickly.
New federal rules, “crafted in part by the carriers, call for delivery of location data for 40% of cellphone calls by 2017 and 80% by 2021,” USA Today reports. “In the months spent drafting the rule, the FCC and the companies said a higher success rate is not possible sooner, indicating the current rate is below 40% in many communities.”
As a result, we still face a risk of a situation like the one that unfolded on a Rancho Santa Fe soccer field in 2007. A man collapsed, and his wife called 911. But she didn’t know the address, and the call taker couldn’t locate her. “So we went back and forth, and by then my husband stopped breathing,” she told CBS 8. He died.
What If My Phone Manages to Transmit My Location?
Even if your phone tells 911 where you are, the information might not be precise. Most of the time, the location technology in cell phones is accurate to within 100 meters, Dedmon said. That’s about the size of a football field.
“If you stand at a busy intersection, how many people are within the 100-meter radius?” asked Dedmon, the advocate for dispatchers. “That could be a city block. Just look at a city block in each direction. If you need police, fire or medical right now, they need to know the address, not the general cross streets.”
What if I’m in a Tall Building?
There’s no way for your smart phone to automatically transmit information to 911 about the floor you’re on in a building. You’ll have to tell the call taker or wait while someone contacts your phone company to dig up your address. That takes a while. And, of course, this strategy won’t work if you’re away from your billing address.
Why Do they Ask Where I Am If They Know?
Even if 911 call takers can figure out your exact address — such as when you call from a prehistoric landline — they won’t assume that’s where the emergency is. Maybe it’s not at your house or even in your city. You might be calling about your neighbor who collapsed in his yard, the car crash that just happened down the block, or your grandmother in Phoenix who just whispered “help” before the line went dead.
What If 911 Can’t Determine My Location?
There are times when location information fails to come through and callers don’t know exactly where they are. Consider this: When you’re out during the day, how often do you know the exact address or cross streets of your location? Callers may also have trouble reciting their location due to trauma, shock or fear. Or they could be lost.
In this kind of case, the 911 staff could contact your phone company and “ping” your phone — send a message to it asking it to let the company know where it is.
Do Some 911 Calls Still Go to CHP?
It’s been years since 911 calls from cell phones routinely went to the California Highway Patrol. The 911 system in the state evolved only to divert calls from highways to the CHP. That system wasn’t perfect, however, since 911 calls from some locations near highways went to the CHP even though they should actually have gone to law enforcement.
The state tried to rectify this in San Diego County and other areas by analyzing calls and then adjusting the 911 system so calls near highways don’t go to the CHP. According to the state, the CHP approved 1,084 “sectors” in the county where 911 calls should “cut over” to local law enforcement agencies instead of going to the CHP.
Can I Text 911?
No, not in San Diego County. Some major cities in the U.S. now allow people to communicate with 911 via text, but local 911 systems haven’t been set up for this yet.
All of the county’s 911 systems want to allow texting, said Captain Dave Brown of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department’s Communication Center. But, he said, it’s not an ideal way to contact 911.
Brown said it’s always better to call if possible. It may take minutes for text messages to go through: “You might get us in 5 seconds, or it might take 5 minutes,” he said. And there’s a huge hitch: Your phone transmits no location at all when you send a text.
Even in a dicey situation, Brown said, “you’re almost always better off leaving the line open” rather than trying to send a text.
How Many Non-Emergency Calls Does 911 Get?
Plenty. People call 911 for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with urgent matters. As we reported this week, some cities have tried to cut down on non-emergency calls by creating “311” systems that give people an easy-to-remember number to call for information about things like city services. San Diego is considering a system like this but doesn’t have one yet.
Some callers may be confused about the difference between emergency and non-emergency calls. The city of San Diego’s website provides a long list of emergencies that warrant 911, such as natural gas leaks, smoke in a building, elevator rescues and garbage fires. “If in doubt,” it says, “call 9-1-1.”
But, it says, don’t call 911 for things like trees down in the street, injured animals, snake removal, leaking fire hydrants and flooding. As for police matters, the city says car thefts, homes with broken windows (especially if the owner is away), and disturbing the peace may not be 911-worthy.
What’s the Deal with Butt Dials?
They’re a gigantic nuisance. So-called “butt dials” – call them “pocket dials” if you feel like being more refined – make up 30 percent of 911 calls to the Sheriff’s Department, Brown said.
How Do Butt Dials Happen on a Locked Phone?
Check out your smartphone’s lock screen. Do you see something that says “Emergency”? That’s your answer. Even if the phone is locked, you may accidentally call 911.
Will They Fix All This Stuff?
Yes, some of it. But the timing will vary.
A new generation of 911 software is on the way that will resolve some issues and allow agencies to better share their resources in emergencies, such as when one city’s 911 system is overwhelmed and it needs a helping hand. A new-age system would automatically divert calls between agencies when one is overwhelmed.
Meanwhile, cell phone companies will be upgrading their systems to better transmit your location. And it may become possible to talk to 911 via video from your phone, which could be handy if, say, you need instructions about giving someone CPR.
Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego and national president of the 1,200-member American Society of Journalists and Authors (asja.org). Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.