911 cell location technology not advancing as fast as usage

JACKSON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - If you're dialing 911 from your cell phone, don't assume the dispatcher on the other end of the line knows what street you're on or even what town you're in. Jackson County's 911 Coordinator said back in 2002, cell phones accounted for about 10 percent of emergency phone calls. The rest were from land lines. Today, 95 percent of 911 calls are made from cells phones.

There is a reason a 911 dispatcher's first question is where is your emergency. While a land line call will immediately give a caller's exact location, an overwhelming number of calls come from cell phones.

"For cell phone calls it's a little different. Obviously you can call from anywhere you want to. That's good, but the downside of that is the location isn't transmitted automatically and it doesn't show up readily on the screen as to where you are," said Jackson County 911 Coordinator George Sholl said. "Even if it does show up, it's not necessarily the accurate location. For example, if you're in an apartment complex, it could be one of several apartments. So accuracy and location haven't advanced along with cell phones."

Officials said it can take up to 20 seconds for the dispatcher to receive information on what is the closest cell tower. Sometimes that tower is not in the same city as the caller.

"You hit a cell phone tower in another city, and they have to transfer you. They'll send it over to that other city, but that city receives it as a fresh phone call, so they're going to address it from the very beginning and say "911 where is your emergency?," said Sholl. "It takes a little bit of time to do that. Not much, but in an emergency everybody wants it done right now, but we've got to do it accurately."

Sholl said in an emergency every second counts, so efforts are underway to improve the system.

"I think most of the 911 centers are upgrading their equipment to allow us to move into the next generation of 911. So we will be able to take texts, we'll be able to take pictures, movies; videos will be transmitted over the system. That's all coming," said Sholl.

For now, officials say people need to be sure to tell the dispatcher the address city and whatever else that will get help to them as soon as possible.

"The first thing they're going to hear when they dial 911 is the dispatcher will ask where is your emergency. If you can tell them that, that will help," said Sholl. "Don't forget that with cell phones, you might be between cities. So you need to tell them not only what street you're at but what city you're in so they can make sure it gets to the right agency to dispatch the help you need.

Emergency officials say starting in July, all major cell phone providers will be required to allow for people to be able to send texts to 911. However, Jackson County officials said they are still in the process updating their 911 system to be able to receive those messages and are not sure when that will be complete.

Sholl said if you have someone living in your home who has special needs or who is elderly, you may want to consider keeping your land line instead of solely relying on a cell phone so that if there is an emergency, the 911 dispatcher will immediately know the location of that emergency.

Official said never let children play with cell phones even deactivated ones because those phones are still able to make emergency calls. However, if a phone is deactivated, dispatchers can't call the phone back.

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