Do dispatchers know where you are when you dial 911?

Dispatchers report difficulties locating patients who call 911 from cellphones

By Laura Nightengale
Journal Star

PEORIA, Ill. — When you dial 911, perhaps the most important piece of information you can provide is your location, but often callers aren't able to tell dispatchers the address they're calling from.

"It's a huge issue. It's frustrating, especially if you've got someone having a medical emergency or a fight," said Jeanette Morse, a supervisor at the Emergency Communications Center that handles calls for the city of Peoria and Peoria County.

Calls from landlines can instantly deliver a litany of information, including address, the resident's name and call back number, but more than 80 percent of 911 calls in Peoria come from cellphones.

Within a few seconds of receiving a cellphone call, a dispatcher's screen will display the approximate location of the call. To get more specific information, they have to contact the phone carrier directly and ask for a "ping," a process that in life or death situations can cost valuable time.

The primary service that dispatchers will see only delivers location within a 150-meter radius at best, which may be enough when dispatchers need to defer a prank call, but can be an issue when police, fire or ambulance crews need to be sent to the scene.

"That's not too bad in a cornfield or out on a rural road, but in an urban setting when you have 30 or 40 houses on a 150-meter stretch of road it can be more of a problem unless they're outside," ECC manager David Tuttle said.

Dispatchers have the ability to use a second-tier location service that takes longer to locate but can be more accurate, but even that accuracy can vary widely depending on terrain, whether the caller is inside or outside and what device someone is using to call.

And in some cases, like a recent Illinois River rescue of a disoriented man on a boat who couldn't describe his location to dispatchers, it's no help at all. For calls coming from a river or body of water not attached to an address, dispatcher's don't immediately have any specific location information.

In cases like that one, dispatchers located the man through a "ping," but that service is only available through cellphone carriers. Dispatchers have to contact the company and explain the situation to ask for the location information; in cases of life or death, the companies are usually quick to comply.

The bottom line is callers shouldn't assume that dispatchers can locate them when calling from a cellphone.

Whenever possible, use a landline when calling 911. When it's not, look for any information that could be helpful for emergency crews looking for you: a street name, description of the building or nearby vehicles or landmarks.

Copyright 2016 the Journal Star

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