Calling 911 from a Cell Phone? Dispatchers May Have a Hard Time Finding You

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SACRAMENTO -- If your life is in danger, and you call 911, there’s one question dispatchers will ask before anything else -- where are you?

Nowadays, the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, says that 70 percent of 911 calls are made from cell phones. GPS apps like Uber and Lyft can find your location at the touch of a button. Many people assume 911 calls work the same way.

It doesn't.

“I think there’s a misconception, that if you call 911, 911 knows where you are, and what you need. We don’t,” Sacramento County Sheriff's Dispatcher Becki Moore said.

Moore explained, there are two types of emergency 911 calls -- phase one, and phase two. Phase one calls can only be pinpointed to the nearest cell phone tower.

“So that could mean anything,” said Moore. “Towers, they have a huge amount of space. So we can never find you based on a tower.”

Phase two calls can be traced within a certain radius of you, measured in meters. But it’s not an exact science.

“It could be within five meters, it could be within 500 meters,” said Moore.

Five hundred meters is nearly 6 football fields lined up one after another. Emergency call centers rely on cell phone carriers to provide the location of people who dial 911. If you can’t tell dispatch where you’re calling from, you have to trust that your cell phone company can do it for you.

So how did some carriers stack up, when it comes to locating 911 callers? With permission from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, FOX40 put them to the test.

We had a producer stand at the corner Elsie Avenue and Sunrise Green Drive, in Sacramento. She had three different phones, from three different carriers- Verizon, AT&T, and a smaller company, Republic Wireless.

The first call was from the Verizon phone. Initially, the carrier placed us 19 meters from the nearest cell phone tower, which is more than a quarter mile away. After two more tries, called “rebids”, Verizon finally found our exact location. But it took nearly 30 seconds. That’s time that first responders can’t afford to waste.

“I’ve had tons of calls where people get help later than they should have,” explained Moore. “They should have gotten help sooner. But because we couldn’t figure out where they where, and they couldn’t figure out where they were, it took a long time.”

The second call was AT&T. This carrier placed us within 8 meters of our exact location, on the first try.

The third call was made from a Republic Wireless phone, a carrier that uses the internet as well as cell towers to make phone calls. But during our test, the carrier placed us a mile away from our actual location. When we dialed into the call center, the phone number came up as an area code 916 number, though the number associated with the phone is area code 415.

FOX40 reached out to Republic Wireless for comment. A spokesperson, Cherie Gary, told us the issue “is a limitation of the technology currently used to determine a cell phone’s location when 911 is called, this it’s not an issue unique to Republic Wireless, but to all cellular providers.”

They went on to explain that there are actually two numbers for every one of their phones -- a Republic number for internet calls, and another number for calls made using cell towers. Gary told us, “Even though a different number may have appeared in your test, rest assured it is actively associated with the customer’s Republic phone, and will allow a 911 operator to reach the customer via callback if necessary.”

Moore agrees, there’s a problem with 911 technology. But she has seen improvements in her 13 years at the department. The FCC knows there is room for improvement. If first responders could find callers just one minute faster, the FCC estimates 10,000 lives could be saved every year. The agency is now requiring improvements be made, such as achieving location accuracy within 50 feet, or finding the exact location of 80 percent of 911 calls, by the year 2021.

We also reached out to Verizon and AT&T for comment. They directed us to CTIA, a non-profit that represents wireless companies. Matt Gerst,  CTIA's Assistant Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, told us they are “working collaboratively with the FCC and the public safety community to thoroughly evaluate new technologies that may enhance existing 911 location accuracy capabilities.”