“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.
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.
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.”