Next-Gen 911

911 Dispatchers Use New Technologies to Quickly Locate Cellphone Callers

The key to successful 911 call location for local agencies is the incorporation of several new technologies including phones with better GPS locating capabilities and the 911 center's adoption of CAD systems synced with Google Maps.

by Ashley Morris, Star-News, Wilmington, N.C. / June 6, 2016
Jessica Mulholland

(TNS) -- SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. -- Across the country, 911 centers in some states still have trouble locating the people calling into 911.

According to USA Today, more than 70 percent of calls to 911 centers in 2014 came from cellphones and that number is only growing. The problem is cellphones can be trickier to locate than landlines, which give dispatchers an immediate and accountable location.

However local dispatchers say they are confident in their abilities to locate someone calling into 911 with their system technology. Brunswick County analyst Brian Ross said dispatchers in the county are required to locate someone calling within six minutes, but they can usually find someone in one.

The key to successful 911 call location for local agencies is the incorporation of several new technologies including phones with better GPS locating capabilities and the 911 center's adoption of CAD systems synced with Google Maps.

"Here in New Hanover County we don't have too much difficulty in locating someone," said 911 dispatch trainer Matt Langley.

If a phone is Phase 2 compliant -- most newer phones are -- the phones have better capabilities in sending cell towers GPS coordinates, Langley said. Older model phones that are Phase 2 can be located within a sector of the cell tower range, but it is up to the caller to communicate a more exact location.

In a worst-case scenario where callers cannot communicate where they are, a phone's ability to transmit GPS coordinates becomes even more vital. In those cases where a location is not spoken or not known, Langley said dispatchers have to use good judgment and go through all the layers of information in front of them to send responders to the right spot.

Sorting through layers

When a call goes to 911, dispatchers are shown some basic information about the call on their screens. Their systems show if the call is coming from a business or residential landline and if it is from a cellphone, which carrier or company. Within seconds dispatchers can see which cell tower the phone is connecting with. Then, dispatchers communicate with that tower, which communicates with the phone. Then the caller is asked for his location and his phone number, in case the call is dropped.

Usually within 30 seconds, if a cellphone has Phase 2 capabilities, dispatchers can pick up an X and Y coordinate for the phone from the cell tower. Ross explained that dispatchers can click for the tower to "re-bid" or "re-transmit" to gather more information about the phone location from the tower.

"When those dispatchers get calls, I can tell you they are frantically hitting Re-bid as many times as they can to get the exact X and Y coordinate of where you are," Ross said.

The caller's location if found from the cell tower is shown on an online map in front of the dispatcher. Not all states or counties have that capability, Langley said.

In Brunswick County in particular, Ross and others have developed a layered map for their 911 center that goes beyond pinpointing streets and addresses. Their in-house map contains more than 3,500 local landmarks and even slang terms so dispatchers can locate a caller who is referencing something such as, "Five Points."

"The dispatcher can enter in any colloquialism that we need and we have the ability to figure out what the caller is referencing," Ross said.

In New Hanover County dispatchers can follow a 911 caller as they travel down the road, Langley said. Even if the person calls from Brunswick County, Langley said they can transfer the call to Brunswick authorities, but with the use of the map they are able to know the call came into the wrong jurisdiction.

If those methods of tracking someone still fail, 911 dispatchers can search the call history from the number and find an address where responders were usually sent in the past.

Next Generation 911

Dispatchers still agree there is room for improvement. Both Langley and Ross said their counties are looking forward to the incorporation of Next Generation 911. Next Generation, or Next Gen, is an IP-based technology platform that enables public safety operators to gather information not just through calls, but through submitted videos, texts and photos. In addition GPS tracking of a caller has improved accuracy with Next Generation 911 features.

In Brunswick County, Ross said officials are sending letters in the next few weeks to major cellphone carriers, telling them they are incorporating the technology to allow users to text into 911. Then it is up to the carriers, Ross said, to go live with the technology.

Langley said while they are excited to see the eventual roll out of the new technology, it could be scary for dispatchers to see what may be unfolding in an emergency rather than just seeing it. With photos and videos emergency responders will know what color a car might be they are looking for, or that the fire is at the house with the red mailbox, he explained.

"A lot of us are trying to mentally prepare for the stuff that we might see," Langley said of the video submission feature for Next Generation 911. "A lot of times our imagination might actually be worse from what it actually is, but at the same time our dispatchers might be seeing some hard stuff."

©2016 the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.