One-third of Utah 911 cellphone calls don't have accurate location information

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 1 2014 6:04 p.m. MST

Dispatcher Kellie Roddom takes calls at the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building in Salt Lake City Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. A new analysis of data released by the FCC shows that more than one-third of all calls received by 911 emergency centers in Utah from wireless phones in June 2013 did not include the accurate location information necessary to find a caller in crisis.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — New data from the Federal Communications Commission show that more than one-third of 911 calls made from wireless phones in Utah didn’t include the location information needed to find callers.

The data found that 846,090 of the wireless calls received in Utah emergency centers during June 2013 lacked "Phase II" location information that displays the location of the caller. The FCC requires correct location information for all calls, but in many cases 911 call centers receive only basic "Phase I" data that show the location of cell towers used in the call. Having just Phase I data leaves a larger area for emergency responders to look for a caller.

“While there are a fair number of cellphones that the address and phone numbers don’t show up in the 911 center, there’s a very small portion of time when that information doesn’t show up and the caller doesn’t know where they’re at,” said Scott Freitag, director for Salt Lake City 911. “That’s obviously a group that we’re very concerned about, but it’s pretty rare that both of those situations happen at the same time.”

Freitag said that happens about 12 times a year and it rarely involves a loss of life or significant loss of property. It does delay response time, which he said the center doesn't want to happen.

"But I can’t think in my time here with 911 that we were ever unable to eventually find somebody,” he said.

The 911 center has been working with others in the industry, cellphone providers and the Legislature to improve the technology and get the latest equipment, Freitag said.

“But it’s just not quite there yet, to be able to exactly pinpoint someone with their phone if they don’t know where they’re at,” he said.

Jamie Barnett, director of the Find Me 911, said the coalition of more than 160,000 emergency responders, 911 dispatchers and others are advocating for the FCC to treat the lack of location information as a public safety problem.

Barnett said more than 240 million 911 calls are made each year, 70 percent of which are wireless and almost 60 percent are made indoors. This is a problem, he said, because most wireless carriers have a GPS-based location system. Cellphone signals are strong enough to go through walls, but GPS signals are weaker and have a higher frequency, causing them to bounce off those same barriers.

“When these things don’t work they fall back to other technologies that can be wildly inaccurate,” he said. “Like off by a mile.”

So the coalition is also pushing for the FCC to demand a location requirement on wireless-phone calls made indoors.

“We need 911 to work no matter where you are,” he said. “Most people only call 911 once, maybe twice, in their lifetime. And that can be the most important call they’ve ever made.”

Eric Parry, director of the state of Utah's 911 program, said he plans to move forward with Next Generation 911, which will eliminate some problems, and as smart phones improve so will location information.

“Really, in the grand scheme of things, Utah’s in pretty good shape compared to the other states,” Parry said. “Some states don’t have a 911 program, period.”

Freitag said he doesn’t want people to panic or think there is a major problem. He said the biggest message he hopes to send is to tell people that the first question a 911 operator will ask is where the person is located.

“That’s one of those things that’s going to be the responsibility of the person making the phone call,” he said. “To be able to tell the 911 dispatcher where they’re at.”

Email: eeagar@deseretnews.com

Twitter: EmileeEagar

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