A survey of 911 dispatchers reveals the horrible, human cost of bad technology

Gary Loffin is the head of a public safety answering point — better known as a 911 dispatch office — in York County, S.C. One day, the office got an emergency call from a woman's cell phone. If she'd been on a landline, finding her would've been a cinch. But because the wireless device couldn't give dispatchers an accurate geolocation fix, it took first-responders half an hour to find her. By the time they arrived, she had died.

"She took her last breath while on the phone with the [dispatcher]," Loffin told public safety researchers later.

Loffin is one of hundreds of public safety officials who say an alarming proportion of 911 calls go unfulfilled because wireless technology fails to help locate victims in time.

In Colorado, a woman who was choking on her own blood died because she couldn't verbally tell the dispatcher where she was. Officials tried to locate her using information from her cell phone signals, but all they could do was find out which cell tower the device was talking to — which isn't nearly specific enough to obtain a street address, let alone an apartment or room number.

These and other stories account for dozens of pages of a new report on wireless 911 calls published by a coalition of first-responders known as Find Me 911. The group, which includes the U.S. First Responders Association and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine, surveyed some 1,000 public safety answering points (PSAPS) nationwide — amounting to roughly 15 percent of all 911 call centers, according to spokesman Andrew Weinstein.

"It just hit a nerve," said Weinstein. "Across the board, they're saying they have regular problems getting data, and strongly, almost to a PSAP, they say that they are regularly getting calls from callers who cannot give locations for one reason or another."

Of the 1,000 respondents, only 187 call centers reported "a great deal" of confidence in the location data they receive from wireless carriers.


(Find Me 911)

The Federal Communications Commission estimates that upwards of 70 percent of all emergency calls take place from a cell phone. Of those, 64 percent come from indoors, the report finds.

That's problematic because many phones today are impossible to find with the pinpoint accuracy that first-responders need to locate someone in a crisis. Assisted GPS — the technology that helps Google Maps tell you where you are — requires a cellular connection and good line of sight to multiple satellites. But if you're indoors and have poor reception, you'll likely be out of luck. There are obvious privacy concerns that come along with using geolocation data to find cell phone users. In a life-threatening emergency, though, most people would probably consider setting those aside.

Current regulations require cellular carriers to identify a 911 caller's phone number and cell tower to dispatchers within six minutes months. Further improvements mandated that carriers provide latitude and longitude data to dispatchers that can pinpoint a caller to within 300 meters.

Now federal regulators are working on new rules to address some of these problems. Once a dispatcher picks up, the FCC says, they should know where the victim is within a 50-meter radius after about 30 seconds. If the caller is calling from more than one floor up, the dispatcher should know which floor the caller is on.

First-responders, meanwhile, want to shave those 30 seconds down to 15 seconds or better, said retired Rear Adm. James Barnett, a former head of the FCC's public safety and homeland security bureau and the director of Find Me 911.

Fifteen seconds "doesn't sound like a whole lot of time until you think about how easy calls can drop, or people pass out," Barnett said. "These 911 professionals are hearing people die, and they're hearing people they can't reach. It's preventing them from doing their job."

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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