Local News

Seeking Safety: Cellular calls to 911 may limit response

Posted January 26, 2014

Nancy McCleary, The Fayetteville Observer

If I need to call 911, I'd like to think that the dispatchers will be able to get help to me quickly.

I imagine most of us do.

So it was with some concern and much interest that I read a story from The Associated Press that appeared in The Fayetteville Observer on Jan. 4. It essentially said that cellphone calls to 911 may not provide accurate information to the dispatcher. In fact, of the 447,918 cellphone calls to 911 in the state during June, 211,241 of them lacked accurate location information.

In other words, getting emergency help to someone in trouble was delayed because of a problem with the operation of GPS technology indoors.

The numbers were compiled by the Find Me 911 Coalition, whose members include emergency responders and 911 dispatchers across the nation, based on data submitted by the N.C. 911 Board to the Federal Communications Commission.

So, the question is this: If I call 911 from my cellphone, is help going to get to me in time?
The answer is maybe, according to directors of the Fayetteville and Cumberland County 911 systems.

"It does happen from time to time," said Tim Mitchell, deputy director of the county's Emergency Services.

Now, I'm not a tech-savvy person, so I'll stay away from the scientific reasons Mitchell talked about. Suffice it to say that the problem is primarily with older model cellphones.

The newer ones have the GPS technology, Mitchell said. But sometimes, the signal doesn't transmit because of a weak or faulty satellite connection.

Let's say you live in a multi-story building and you have an emergency and call 911.

"It (the GPS system) may give you an address, but it won't give you the floor," Mitchell said.

OK. I'll live with that (no pun intended) since a floor might be easy enough to track down.

"Our biggest concern is if someone is in trouble and can't tell us where they're at," Mitchell said, "or the ones we can't track. If we don't get that GPS coordinate, that's trouble."

Indeed it is when seconds could be the difference between life and death.

But if you live in Fayetteville, odds are the 911 dispatcher will get your locations, said Lisa Reed, manager of the city's 911 communications.

The city and county 911 centers operate with the same program, Reed said. What gives Fayetteville the advantage is the urban development.

A miscue on a signal location is easier to have when someone is calling from a rural area, Reed said.

With more people opting for cellphones over land lines, the lack of accurate data remains a concern, Mitchell said.

"People should be aware of this. It's one of those things that happens as technology evolves."

So, if you're questioning whether your phone is equipped with GPS capabilities, ask the manufacturer or, if you're like me, go back and read the instruction manual that you tossed aside in your haste to use that new device.

If you're in the market for a new phone, ask a sales representative about it. If all else fails ... keep your fingers crossed in the event of an emergency.

Staff writer Nancy McCleary can be reached at mcclearyn@fayobserver.com or 486-3568.


This story is closed for comments.

Oldest First
View all