23ABC INVESTIGATES: How well can 911 operators find your location when you're in need?

Are cellphones or landlines easier to trace?

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - “911, what’s your emergency?”

 

It’s words many hope they’ll never have to hear, but it’s who you call when you need help.

 

With new technology, many people are getting rid of their landline phone and just using their cell phone instead. But is a cell phone or a landline more reliable when you’re in need of help?

 

In fact, more than 80 percent of the 240 million 911 calls made in the U.S. every year are made from cellphones.

 

But can emergency crews track down where you are if you can’t speak for yourself?

 

23ABC’s investigative team looked into it and discovered even with advances in technology, there isn’t a perfect system.


From the moment a call taker answers a 911 emergency call, they’re working to track down where you are.

 

“It’s not ever an exact location but a lot of times it’s pretty close,” said Tamia Smith, the

Communication Supervisor for the Bakersfield Police Department.

 

Smith has more than 20 years of experience as a call taker. She said the most important thing is knowing the location of someone who needs help.

 

More cell phone towers around Kern County has made it easier to more accurately pinpoint the location of a cell phone, sometimes down to within a few hundred yards.

 

They’ll first get a location of the cell tower that transmitted the 911 call, then the call taker will re-transmit the signal to get more accurate GPS coordinates of the tower as well as the phone number of the caller.

 

TIPS TO HELP 911 FIND YOUR LOCATION

  • Restart your cellphone every morning.
  • When you travel through mountain areas, be sure to restart your phone when you reach your destination. Otherwise, it may ping off of the wrong cell phone tower.
    • For instance, traveling from Tehachapi to Bakersfield, if you don’t restart your phone it may still show your phone’s location in Tehachapi.
  • Make sure your mailing address for your landline is as accurate as possible. Double check that it includes the full street name and address number.

 

There will also be a percentage of how accurate that location information is.

 

“We will have people call us and instead of telling us the address or the location because they don’t really know,” Smith said, “they’ll tell us ‘just track my phone, track my phone.’

 

“Well, it doesn't quite work like you see on the movies.”

 

Landlines present their own set of problems.

 

Their locations are only as accurate as the information put into the system by the phone company.

 

TIPS FOR CALLING 911
  • Tell the emergency operator the location of the emergency right away.
  • Provide the emergency operator with your wireless phone number, so if the call gets disconnected, the emergency operator can call you back.
  • Refrain from programming your phone to automatically dial 911 when one button, such as the "9" key, is pressed. Unintentional wireless 911 calls, which often occur when auto-dial keys are inadvertently pressed, cause problems for emergency call centers.
  • Lock your keypad when you're not using your wireless phone to help prevent accidental calls to 911.
  • Consider creating a contact in your wireless phone's memory with the name "ICE" (In Case of Emergency), which lists the phone numbers of people you want to have notified in an emergency.
  • If you accidentally dial 911, remain on the line and let the operator know it was an accident.
  • For more tips: https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/911-wireless-services

 

That means in Bakersfield, if a 911 caller only tells the operator they’re on “Panama,” but doesn't specify if it’s Lane, Road, Street, the dispatch system assumes it’s Street because that’s the most common ending for a roadway.

 

And that could lead to first responders being sent to the wrong place.

 

Voice Over Internet Protocol lines, or VOIP, will only show the address the subscriber inputs because those lines are computer-based. That address will show up even if you’re calling from somewhere else.

 

Bottom line is Smith says neither cell phones nor landlines are perfect options. And while technology has improved, call takers still can’t track you to an exact location without your help.

 

“If you can’t say anything else,” Smith said, “provide your location as quickly as possible and if you have the opportunity, provide it a second time because that is the only thing we need to send you help.”

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