‘Dispatchers Save Seconds, Seconds Save Lives, Sometimes’

911 operators share stories of the difficulties in locating some cellphone callers.

by News Staff / September 22, 2014

The Find Me 911 Coalition released in a press release written transcripts of some California 911 calls from cellphones that highlight the difficulty of locating some callers who are indoors.

GPS takes 30 seconds to work, delaying response and sometimes satellite signals may be blocked altogether, making precise location impossible. The press release noted that the technology exists to address the issue and that an FCC proposed ruling would require carriers to deploy it.

In a survey, 911 managers and operators shared some stories about challenges they’ve faced in locating 911 callers who’ve used a cellphone.

In one story, an operator said that 70 percent of calls taken were from cellphones and that the inability to locate callers has become a public safety issue. “We are trained that ‘dispatchers save seconds, seconds save lives,’ and now we need to add to that phrase ‘sometimes.’”

Other stories by operators:

  • “We had a call of a house fire. The cell was hitting the tower only. The RP (reporting person) was giving a street name and address, which was actually a trailer park name and space number. After numerous calls [and] units being dispatched to wrong locations, it was discovered that he was in a trailer park in a different city/county.”
  • “I have had multiple calls where we couldn’t find callers and spend considerable resources trying to track them down. One call that comes to mind included the officer assisting with a room-to-room search of an apartment complex looking for a patient. I’ve taken calls where I’ve had to pray that the person was able to get private transport because we were never able to get an address or get an answer on callback.”
  • “Had a caller with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He called 911 for an ambulance but was unable to speak and the 911 information would not zone in on his location. While keeping the caller on the phone for about 20 minutes, we had to search through the history of the phone number and call old friends at six in the morning before finding out where the caller was staying. The caller was in physical distress but we would have never found him based on 911 info.”
  • “A caller was being held against her will and was only able to leave the phone line open from a cell. Re-pinging the phone multiple times narrowed down the area and previous call number history gave me the location.”
  • “A 911 call was placed by a juvenile who, at great risk to himself, had the foresight to leave the cellphone open inside the residence while not alerting the armed suspect (his stepfather). Dispatchers could hear yelling and screaming inside the residence from the open line. Officers responded to the latitude/longitude location and listened for the yelling and screaming, hoping it was loud enough to hear outside. The cell latitude/longitude did nothing to help pinpoint the caller’s location.”

The press release referenced an FCC notice of proposed rulemaking that describes a 2001 Salt Lake City study of 73,706 emergency incidents, which found that on average, a one-minute decrease in ambulance response times reduced 90-day mortality from 6 percent to 5 percent. That would be a 17 percent reduction in total deaths and extrapolated to reflect the country as a whole, would mean more than 10,000 lives saved yearly.

This staff report was originally published by Emergency Management.