The Flaw in 911 Location Data

When you find yourself in an emergency, you rely on the first responders to be able to quickly find your location. In certain situations, the difference between a 15 and 30-minute response time can often mean life or death. Unfortunately, thousands of people who dial 911 from their cell phones die every year due to the dispatchers’ inability to get a quick and accurate location on them.

Before you go blaming the dispatchers, police, EMTs, and firefighters for a slow response time, you may want to think about the device you’re using to call it in. When you call 911 from a landline, your specific address is clear to the dispatcher within seconds, but when calling from a cell phone, it takes much longer to get any sort of accurate location data. Unfortunately, the technology used by large-scale wireless companies is not always successful when it comes to pinpointing your location, particularly when indoors.

While the FCC proposed new regulations for better acquiring cell phone user’s location data back in 2014, wireless carriers have been lobbying against them, leaving us with not much progress to speak of but a framework for improvement.

Location technology is not a new concept when it comes to mobile phones. The FCC has required wireless companies to provide GPS technology to 911 callers for years. While GPS is certainly helpful, it’s only accurate within 300 meters of the caller, and really works best when in an outdoor, unobstructed location. This means that if you call from an indoor location such as an apartment complex, dormitory, office building, or even an urban location surrounded by tall buildings, the dispatcher may not be able to find your location, especially if you’re on a particular floor or in a particular unit or suite.

The FCC and various lobbying groups are grappling in order to find a compromise that works for both wireless companies and emergency responders. A timeline has been set up to increase both the accuracy and consistency of 911 location readings over the next five years. These improvements would also aim to more accurately get a read on more specific location data such as what floor the caller is on in a large building.

This interactive infographic from The Center for Public Integrity clearly displays why 911 cell phone location services sometimes can’t find you and the proposed improvements to the current system.

What can you do to ensure your safety during an emergency situation? If possible, dialing 911 from a landline will ensure a dispatcher can secure your exact location and emergency teams, but as we all know emergencies don’t exactly wait to happen when you’re by the phone.

If you’re able to speak clearly, make sure to tell the dispatcher your exact location, including apartment or unit number, floor, or any necessary location info, as this will make it easier for your responders to get to you quickly. If you want to take extra precautions, consider downloading an emergency response app for your phone such as RapidSOS. Apps like these vary on their abilities, but all essentially allow you to report an emergency without necessarily dialing 911, which can be crucial if you are unable to speak or physically make a phone call.

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