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911: Location accuracy problems with cell calls

More than 1/3 of U.S. households are now cell phone only. As more consumers are relying only on mobile phones, more may be facing the complications of this growing consumer trend. There’s a common misconception that first responders will always be able to find you if you call 911 from your cell phone in an emergency, that’s not the case. In this special report, we explore the problems that come with wireless emergency calls and what’s being done to fix it.

In October 2014, a hiker, Randall Fennewald called 911. According to documents ABC 17 News obtained, Fennewald claimed he fell off a cliff, hit his head and was bleeding.

“He said he was at Cedar Creek, but the cell phone ping indicated that he was in the Three Creeks Wildlife Area,” said Roger Jaeger, the District Chief at the Southern Boone County Fire Protection District.

Fennewald said he had a head injury, so emergency teams were sent to the “ping” at the Three Creeks Wildlife Area, that lead them to the wrong place. By the time they found Fennewald, he was dead nearly 7 miles away at Cedar Creek.

“An unfortunate incident like this, you roll it over in your mind a lot trying to figure out if there’s something you could have done different,” said Jaeger.

But, the location accuracy from wireless 911 calls is not only a problem in rural areas.

“It’s an issue all across the nation,” said Scott Shelton Director of Boone County 911 Joint Communications.

“Don’t assume that just because you’re calling 911 from a wireless device that we know exactly where you’re at,” said Joe Piper, the Deputy Director of Boone County 911 Joint Communications.

The Boone County 911 dispatch center estimates that 80% of the calls into its center are from cell phones. Boone county is a Phase II E 911 center. That means the FCC requires a cell phone company to provide a latitude and longitude from a 9-1-1 cell call to it. Then, a computer program plots a circle around that point.

“The wireless companies are required to have the equipment in place to that whatever signal we get, it’s within 50-300 meters of that cell phone call,” said Shelton.

The problem is, “This is only as good as and as accurate as your wireless companies make it,” said Shelton.

300 meters can be a few downtown blocks or longer than the length of a football field. If those areas are filled with people, it can become a lot more difficult for emergency crews to find a 911 cell caller.

Another issue is that GPS satellite signals can be easily blocked inside of buildings. ABC 17 News called 911 from inside the Boone County dispatch center to test this out. It “pinged” our call 275 yards away from where we really were.

An additional challenge is that wireless companies are not required to provide elevation information from calls. Say a call, “plotted on top of a building or was a large building or had multiple stories in the facility. You would know perhaps it was in that building, but you wouldn’t know what room or what floor the call was coming from within that building,” said Piper.

The FCC put in a new set of regulations for wireless companies when it comes to 911 location accuracy in January of 2015.

Some of the January 2015 FCC rules:
– The 50-300 meter accuracy circle will now be tighten to 50 meters for all indoor and outdoor calls. Within 6 years 80% of calls are supposed to be in that proximity.
– Indoor calls will now be required to come with a “dispatchable location,” which means a street address plus information like floor and room number, to help create a more specific location.
– For the first time, wireless companies will be required to add a vertical location, or elevation to the 911 cell call accuracy.

Many of these requirements won’t have to be complete for as many as 6 years from now. Cell phone companies will choose what technology to use to implement them. The president and CEO of the CTIA, The Wireless Association, the group representing wireless providers, said this on the CTIA’s website:

“The FCC issued our industry a challenge, and we are proud of our ability to deliver a clear road map to critical 9-1-1 enhancements that meet the high standards and requirements of our nation’s leading public safety organizations.”

Cell companies will have to file regular reports with the FCC about their progress. A number of carriers have violated 911 rules in the past. The FCC has an enforcement bureau that investigates possible violations from carriers. Recently, Centurylink had to pay $16,000,000 and Verizon had to pay 3,400,000 for 911 outage fines from the FCC.

As carriers work to comply with the new rules, Piper suggests if you ever have to make an emergency call, “Stay on the phone, work with the emergency telecommunicator, answer their questions, be aware of your surroundings, know your address.”

Piper also said, “Technology will catch up and things will become more accurate… It’s just not at that level yet.”

Some 911 operators also recommend downloading the “Smart 911” app on your cell phone. It allows you to provide as much information about yourself and your address that you want. It’s activated when you call 911.

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