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911's deadly flaw: Lack of location data

Wednesday, February 25, 2015   (0 Comments)
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Driver clings to life

2/25/2015 - John Kelly and Brendan Keefe , USA TODAY

911's deadly flaw: Lack of location data
 

As water filled her sinking SUV, Shanell Anderson did what anyone would do. She tried the doors. They wouldn't budge. She dialed 911 on her cellphone, telling the operator exactly where she was.

Anderson, 31, was delivering newspapers near Atlanta around 4 a.m. that day in late December, so she knew the cross streets, even the ZIP code. She repeated her location over and over, but it didn't help. Because Anderson's call was routed through the nearest cellphone tower to a neighboring county's 911 system, the dispatcher couldn't find the streets on her maps. Worse yet, the system couldn't get a fix on the cellphone's location before the call ended.


In the agonizing final seconds of the call, Anderson's words are muffled by the sounds of pond water. The dispatcher asks for the address again, then utters, "I lost her."

It took 20 minutes for rescuers to get to Anderson and pull the 31-year old suburban Atlanta woman from her car, barely alive. She died a week and a half later in the hospital. Her 911 call is one of millions that fail to give police, fire and ambulance dispatchers a quick fix on location, a technology shortfall that can leave callers like Anderson in grave danger.

“There are times when it doesn't come up at all. Every day we receive calls where we get a tower address and that's it.” CARL HALL, CHIEF OF TECHNOLOGY AT ALPHARETTA'S PUBLIC SAFETY DEPARTMENT.

In an era when your mobile phone can tell Facebook, Uber or even video games where you're located – with amazing accuracy – 911 operators are often left in the dark.

Your chance of 911 getting a quick fix on location ranges from as low as 10% to as high as 95%, according to hundreds of pages of local, state and federal documents obtained and reviewed by USA TODAY and more than 40 Gannett newspapers and television stations across the country.

The review of 911 call records, including data for seven large states and many additional cities, shows:

In California, more than half of cellphone calls didn't transmit location to 911 from 2011 to 2013, and it's getting worse. Last year, about 12.4 million, or 63%, of California's cellphone calls to 911 didn't share location. Among the worst places: Silicon Valley. In December 2012, precise location was shared in 10%-37% of the area's emergency calls, depending on the wireless carrier.

In Colorado, 58% of the 5.8 million cellphone-to-911 calls last year transmitted coordinates, according to data obtained from the Colorado 911 Resource Center.

In Texas, two-thirds of cellphone calls in a sample of calls from major cities – including Austin and Houston – reached 911 without an instant fix on location from 2010 through 2013.

In the Virginia suburbs outside Washington, Fairfax County reported 25% of cellphone calls included precise location data in 2014, and Loudoun County said 29% of mobile calls did over the last six months of 2014.
Those figures are typical of what's documented by 911 officials in hundreds of other communities, according to local, state and federal government records. There is no mandate or standard for collection or study of 911 location data. The FCC doesn't collect data, and neither do some 911 centers. That makes it difficult to look at consistent statistics from state to state.

In their reports and letters to the FCC, police and fire chiefs, 911 operators, emergency room doctors and others raised concerns about the problem worsening as more calls shift to the cellphone network, which accounts for at least 70% of all 911 calls.

"It is now easier than ever for victims to reach 911, but harder than ever for responders to reach them," said David Shoar, the sheriff in St. John's County, Fla., writing to the FCC in November as president of the Florida Sheriffs Association.911's deadly flaw: Lack of location data


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