Commercial apps, such as Facebook and Uber, can pinpoint your exact location using your smartphone’s built-in GPS. But that’s not necessarily the case when you call 911.
That’s because most 911 centers determine a mobile caller’s location based on technology that was adopted two decades ago — before cellphones were equipped with GPS. So, instead of obtaining location information directly from the phone, the 911 center estimates the caller’s location based on which cell tower is in use.
The problem is, the tower your phone pings may be miles away, or even in another jurisdiction.
Such was the case back in 2014, when newspaper deliverywoman Shanell Anderson called 911 after accidentally driving her SUV into a pond.
The sinking vehicle was located in Cherokee County — north of Atlanta. But the call was routed to a 911 center in the City of Alpharetta, two counties away. By the time rescuers were able to find Anderson’s location, the 31-year-old had already suffered critical injuries and died in the hospital several days later.
Alpharetta 911 receives approximately 44,000 emergency calls per year. Each day, the center has to transfer an estimated 10 to 12 calls that are misrouted from different jurisdictions.
“The amount of time that is spent in that 911 center getting to the right location is time wasted getting responders to the scene,” said Carl Hall, Alpharetta’s Public Safety administrator.
Alpharetta and other municipalities have been helping tech startup LaaSer test technology to give 911 centers accurate information on the location of mobile callers. It involves no equipment or software upgrades at the 911 centers, but helps cellphones communicate their GPS locations during emergency calls.
“Our approach is to let each piece of the puzzle do what it’s good at,” said LaaSer CEO Fred White. “The cell tower is great at communicating voice and data — not so great at figuring out where your phone is. Your phone is very good at telling where it is. So, we let the phone do its work, it tells our system where it is. And our system uses the cellular network just to transmit the voice and data necessary to complete the call.”
During a supervised test, a Fox News reporter dialed 911 from his cellphone. Although he placed the call while standing next to a 911 operator inside the Alpharetta center, her computer screen showed the address of a cell tower more than one mile away.
When CEO White called from the same location using his LaaSer 911 equipped mobile phone, the operator’s computer immediately showed the correct address of the 911 center.
Company officials say they’re working with a major Android manufacturer to make this technology a standard feature on their new phones.
Currently, 70 to 80 percent of emergency calls are made on cellphones. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that a one minute improvement in 911 response times for mobile callers would save more than 10,000 lives each year.
The FCC has mandated that by 2021, 911 centers must be able to receive accurate locations from 80 percent of wireless calls. But that still means one in five mobile callers may fall through the cracks in an emergency.