Why cell phone location isn’t always accurate for 911 calls

Reporter: Lindsey Sablan

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Eighty percent of 911 calls in Lee County are made from cell phones but your phone does not always tell the dispatcher where you are.

When a 911 dispatcher receives a call from a cell phone it will bring up a phase one or phase two location. Laurie Anderson, the 911 Coordinator for Charlotte County, explained a phase one location is the location of the nearest tower to the caller’s cell phone. The phase two location is supposed to be the exact latitude and longitude coordinates of the caller’s cell phone.

“Location accuracy can change based on your carriers and it’s not always accurate,” Anderson said. “It takes some time and may take a longer response for units to be able to get to a person or an emergency if they don’t have that location information.”

In addition, if you are calling 911 from inside a large building, it will often only pull up phase one coordinates, and if it is a multi-floor building it won’t tell the dispatcher what level you are on. The floor level is known as the z-axis and that is something the cell phone companies are working on providing.

Currently, when you call 911 from outside the dispatcher should get your phase two location, or the exact coordinates. On the Charlotte County dispatcher’s screen it will show what carrier the caller is using, the caller’s number and the coordinates. On the left, it should plot your location on a map. If your exact location does not come up, the dispatcher can do a “re-bid,” which basically is refreshing the call to see if the coordinates will come in. The re-bid process can take up to 30 seconds.

With the help of two local dispatch centers, Call for Action investigators tested three cell phone companies: AT&T, Sprint and Verizon. The first test was in the Charlotte County dispatch center and we called 911 from all three cell phones from inside the center. The Sprint and Verizon brought up our phase one location, or the location of the nearest tower. The AT&T phone did not have a signal and could not call. Then our investigators walked right outside the dispatch center and tried again. The Sprint and Verizon phone brought up my exact location; however, the AT&T phone told the dispatcher I was a mile and a half from where I was actually standing.

After the test, Call for Action reporter Lindsey Sablan asked Anderson, “So what does that say to you?”

Anderson responded, “It says you better know where you’re at. You better be able to provide an address.”

Call for Action reached out to AT&T for a comment. This was their response.

“I have been in touch with our 911 team about your test inside the Charlotte County call center. We take our 911 obligations very seriously and are looking into the details associated with your call attempts.”

Our investigators did a similar test with the help of Sarasota County’s dispatch center. We called from inside the dispatch center again using AT&T, Sprint and Verizon. All three carriers brought up our location. Then we moved right outside the dispatch center and again called 911. This time all three carriers brought up our exact coordinates. Finally, we drove about 15 minutes down the road to a shopping plaza, where we called 911 from inside a salon. All three carriers brought up my location as the shopping plaza.

By next year the Federal Communications Commission has required cell phone companies to improve location accuracy in regards to 911 calls. The new rules require the carrier provide an exact location within 50 meters. In the past, they had to be within 150 to 300 meters. The new rules will also require 40-percent of cell phone calls meet the 50-meter standard by 2017, and over the next five years the carriers must meet the requirements by 80-percent.

The carriers will also have to be able to provide the z-axis, or what floor a caller is on if calling from a multi-floor building.

We reached out to the four large wireless carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, who referred us to CTIA, the wireless trade association. We asked CTIA what specific steps the industry has taken to improve location accuracy by next year.

“Today, wireless carriers use a mixture of network and handset based technologies to generate location information for over 90% of wireless calls to 9-1-1. When someone dials 9-1-1 on their cell phone, the handset itself may go into a “9-1-1-mode” that, for example, automatically turns on the GPS technology that may already be inside the phone. The wireless network will then combine the GPS reading from the wireless handset with network information, such as distance from the cell-tower, to estimate the latitude and longitude of the caller. The 9-1-1 call center will use those coordinates to determine where to dispatch first responders based on the 9-1-1 call center’s mapping technologies.

To meet the FCC’s new requirements that take effect next year, wireless carriers will add or enhance network technologies to the existing wireless 9-1-1 location accuracy process. In addition, wireless carriers will develop a new National Emergency Address Database (NEAD) of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Beacon access points. The NEAD database will enable wireless carriers to provide a dispatchable location to 9-1-1 call centers, which is the street address plus floor, suite or apartment, in addition to the coordinates generated through the existing wireless 9-1-1 location accuracy process.”
– Scott Bergmann, Vice President, Regulatory Affairs at CTIA

But our investigators found even with the FCC’s new requirements there is a deadly flaw in the system. One local case highlights the exact problem.

In Oct. 2015, a man called 911 from his Quail West home to report it was on fire. In 911 calls obtained by Call for Action, it shows his call is routed to Lee County instead of Collier County. His home was on the county line and routed to the carrier’s nearest tower. However, Lee County was not the responding agency, so they had to transfer the information.

In a second 911 call from the homeowner, you can hear the frantic interaction.

Homeowner: “I called 911 ten minutes ago, five minutes ago.”
Dispatcher: “That’s in Collier County correct?”
Homeowner: “Yes, yes, yes, Quail West.”
Dispatcher: “You’ve reached Lee County but we’ve passed that information along to Collier.”
Homeowner: “Please tell them the house is on fire!”

We asked CTIA if there was anything being done to address this issue.

“Local public safety authorities, representing almost 6,000 individual 9-1-1 call centers throughout the U.S., direct the wireless carriers to route calls to 9-1-1 call centers based on the location of the wireless tower where the call began. Once the 9-1-1 call center receives the location estimate from a wireless carrier, usually within 30 seconds of the call initiation, the 9-1-1 call center can determine whether the call should be transferred to another 9-1-1 call center. The FCC’s new rules will improve the ability of local public safety authorities to determine where to direct the wireless carriers to route calls to 9-1-1 call centers.”

Meanwhile, Anderson explained the dispatch centers have had preliminary discussions on ways to better communicate and even see neighboring county’s maps.

If you are in an unfamiliar area, pay attention to mile markers, street signs and landmarks that way you can describe your surroundings to the dispatcher.

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