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News : Calling 911 on a Cell? They Won't Know your Address
Buncombe County, NC, USA, Feb 23, 2015 -- In a world in which smartphone apps chronicle the exact spot where you're buying a cup of coffee or seeing a movie, most people just assume their address would pop up during a 911 emergency call from a cellphone.
"It's hardly ever that we know exactly where they're at," said Johnny Wilson, communications supervisor with the Buncombe County 911 call center, which handles medical and law enforcement calls for Buncombe County and the city of Asheville. "With a cellphone call, we have to to keep rebidding and rebidding."
Rebidding involves digitally triangulating the call from nearby cell towers, "drilling down and getting a closer location to where they're at," as Wilson puts it. A USA Today investigation has found that, nationwide, the chance of 911 getting a quick fix on your location varies from 10 to 95 percent, according to hundreds of pages of local, state and federal documents obtained and reviewed by USA TODAY and more than 40 Gannett newspapers and television stations across the country.
The numbers are surprisingly low in many areas. For years, 911 callers using a landline have known that their address automatically comes up on the dispatcher's screen.
But that is not the case with cell calls.
That surprises Asheville mom Bree Newcomb, who's been teaching her 3-year-old son, Gavin, about dialing 911. Like a lot of people, she assumed smartphones would give 911 an exact location.
"He's getting to an age where he could dial 911, but he could not tell them where he is," said Newcomb, 34. "When I use the maps app on Google, my exact location comes up and shows where I am. If something were to happen to me, I worry what would happen to him."
Another Asheville mother, Letitia Davis, 37, said she too was surprised by the gap in exact location information.
"Some people think that's the whole point of having a cellphone — safety," said Davis, who has a 10-year-old daughter. "If you are in the back of a trunk (in a carjacking), I think it should be able to locate me if I called 911."
Davis said she has called 911 before on her cellphone.
"They've asked, 'What's your problem and what's your location?" Davis said. "Most of your kids need a cellphone in today's world. There are no payphones anymore. So it definitely makes me think about my 10-year-old. I thought if she calls 911, they would know where she is."
To a degree, they do.
Wilson said Buncombe County received 187,984 calls last year to the 911 center, and about 70 percent of those were cellphone calls. Of those cell calls, "99 percent of them have tower information."
That means they can locate the nearest cell tower and begin the triangulating process.
"To get a specific location is probably unheard of," Wilson said. "We can get probably within 100 feet, if there are enough cellphone towers."
That sounds pretty good, but if you're in an apartment complex or a densely populated area, that's not as specific as it sounds.
In rural areas with fewer towers, the ability to get within even that margin drops precipitously. In all, Wilson says about 10 percent of cell callers do not know where they are or cannot offer landmarks or other helpful location information.
"Even at that point, we keep interrogating until we get a landmark or a nearby business or something else to go on," Wilson said.
In Henderson County, Director of Communications Lisha Stanley said of 53,703 incoming 911 calls in 2014, cellphones accounted for 40,364 of them.
Their technology allows them to triangulate the call and get within about 300 feet, Stanley said, although heavy infrastructure of a building or a rural location can cause interference. She said she's not aware of any 911 technology that can give an exact address.
"A few years ago, we had a small plane crash where the pilot knew he was somewhere near the North Carolina/South Carolina line," Stanley said, adding that although the pilot was on the ground, they couldn't get a solid location. "We did have trouble locating that gentlemen."
Like Wilson, Stanley acknowledged that this could be a problem with someone having a medical emergency that affects speech, or witnessing or experiencing a crime in which someone does not have time to give a location or exact address. Giving your name and location early in a 911 call is vital.
April Burgess-Johnson, executive director at Helpmate, the domestic violence shelter in Asheville, found the numbers somewhat alarming, as some domestic violence victims might not be able to give out specific addresses or locations during a violent incident.
"I really did think it was a higher percentage of calls that could be tracked (to an exact location)," Burgess-Johnson said. "Clearly, there are times in a domestic violence incident when a caller is interrupted by the abuser. Our local law enforcement community is doing more than anybody could ask to address domestic violence, but it sounds like this could be a larger need."
The USA Today investigation found:
• In California, more than half of cellphone calls didn't transmit location to 911 from 2011-13. Last year, about 12.4 million, or 63 percent, of California's cellphone calls to 911 didn't share location.
• In Colorado, 58 percent of the 5.8 million cellphone-to-911 calls last year transmitted coordinates, according to the Colorado 911 Resource Center.
• In Texas, two-thirds of cellphone calls in a sample of calls from major cities — including Austin and Houston — reached 911 without an instant fix on location from 2010-13.
• In the Virginia suburbs outside Washington, Fairfax County reported 25 percent of cellphone calls included precise location data in 2014, and Loudoun County said 29 percent of mobile calls did over the last six months of 2014.
Those figures reflect what's documented by 911 officials in hundreds of other communities, according to local, state and federal government records. No mandate for collection or study of 911 location data exists, and the Federal Communications Commission and even some 911 centers don't collect data, making it difficult to glean consistent statistics from state to state.
In their reports and letters to the FCC, police and fire chiefs, 911 operators, emergency room doctors and others raised concerns about the problem worsening as more calls shift to the cellphone network, which accounts for at least 70 percent of all 911 calls.
The FCC and the four largest cellphone carriers say they're doing their best to address the problem. This month, they worked together on a new federal rule that requires carriers to steadily increase the percentage of cellphone calls to 911 that transmit location data.
The rules, crafted in part by the carriers, call for delivery of location data for 40 percent of cellphone calls by 2017 and 80 percent by 2021. 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 percent in many communities.
David Simpson, chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, acknowledged the system is not capable of solving the problem sooner. His agency's mission instead was "to ensure there was a backstop of enforceable regulations that held them accountable for improving the indoor location accuracy challenge."
The four largest cellphone carriers declined to answer reporters' questions. Their trade organization, CTIA The Wireless Association, said that, until recently, the cellphone-to-911 location technology being used was meant for outdoor use and simply doesn't work as well indoors.
Scott Bergmann, the group's vice president for regulatory affairs, said the cellphone companies "stepped up" last year to begin an aggressive effort to improve the system using new technologies, including wi-fi and Bluetooth, to increase the availability and the accuracy of location data from cellphone calls.
Bergmann said the FCC's "time frames are aggressive," and the companies "are hard at work with our public safety partners to improve wireless 911 calls as quickly as possible."
Newcomb, the mother of the 3-year-old, said she's not a fan of governmental or phone company intrusion into her privacy, but she would like to see a system where 911 calls automatically give a specific address or location. She suspects another reason for the slow improvements by the cell companies.
"There's no reason for them to do it, financially," she said.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Published: Wednesday, February 25, 2015