In the event of an emergency, in most places in the country you can call 9-1-1 for help and be confident that the EMS operator on the other end can instantly see your location, making it easier to send help.
But you can make no such assumption if you are calling for help from a cellphone, says an advocacy group called the Find Me 9-1-1 coalition. The group says its latest research in the state of Oregon shows that nearly half of all calls received by 9-1-1 emergency centers in the state from wireless phones in June 2013 did not include the accurate location information necessary to find a caller in crisis.
The problem, the group says, has gotten worse over the last three years as the percent lacking the information has risen more than 12%.
Fatally flawed assumption
"If you use a cell phone, you probably think that a 9-1-1 operator can find you if you call in an emergency. Unfortunately, that assumption could be fatally flawed," said Jamie Barnett, former Chief of the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau and Director of the Find Me 911 Coalition. "For nearly half of wireless callers in Oregon, the emergency call arrived without accurate information on the caller's location, putting lives at risk when callers don't know or can't share their location.”
Barnett says her former agency should take immediate steps to ensure that all 9-1-1 callers can be immediately pinpointed in a crisis, whether indoors or outside, in a rural or urban setting.
Years ago technology allowed development of Enhanced 9-1-1 (E9-1-1). In areas serviced by E9-1-1, the emergency call is selectively routed and the local 9-1-1 center has equipment and database information that allow the call taker to see the caller's phone number and address on a display. That lets them quickly dispatch emergency help, even if the caller is unable to communicate where they are or the nature of the emergency.
Made for landlines
It works very well when the call is made from a landline, but problems can occur when the call is made from a wireless phone. The call may not be routed to the most appropriate 9-1-1 center, and the call taker doesn't receive the callback phone number or the location of the caller.
The result is lost time, especially if the caller is not able to speak or doesn't know their location.
Increasingly consumers – especially younger consumers – don't have landlines but use cellphones as their primary means of communication. While FCC regulations require accurate location data to be provided on all 9-1-1 calls, Find Me 9-1-1 says in too many cases the EMS dispatcher only received basic data showing the location of the cell tower from which the call originated, information of little use to emergency responders given the large area covered by each tower.
The data also highlighted the increased number of wireless 9-1-1 calls received in the state during recent years.
Growing national crisis
"Emergency personnel need accurate location data as soon as a 9-1-1 call arrives, both to ensure that it is routed to the appropriate call center and to respond to the emergency, particularly if the call is cut off before a location can be given,” Barnett said. “This is a growing national crisis, and we urge the FCC and carriers to work with us to adopt indoor location requirements and solve this dangerous problem."
Oregon is far from the only state where this problem exists, Barnett says. The group recently released a study of wireless 9-1-1 calls in North Carolina that showed much the same thing.
What to do
If you make a 9-1-1 call from your cell phone, The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) says you should make sure you start by giving the operator your location. Even if you don't know the exact address, all location information helps.
Look for landmarks, cross street signs and buildings. Know the name of the city or county you are in. Knowing the location is vital to getting the appropriate police, fire or EMS units to respond, NENA says. And if possible, provide an accurate address.
Don't forget the dash
By the way, this might sound silly, but experienced dispatchers and emergency personnel would like for you to always think of the emergency number as 9-1-1 -- including the dashes. Even if you never write it, think of it with the dashes and when speaking, call it "nine one one."
Why? When people panic -- as they usually do in an emergency -- they may waste precious time looking for the "11" on their phone. It sounds silly but it happens all the time.
Besides, 9/11 is the date of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. "The 911" is a Porsche -- fast but not an emergency vehicle.