Rock County, Wis., 911 Dispatchers Can Now Track Cellphones

Emergency dispatch staff operators in the Wisconsin county have a new tool, and it’s one that allows them to track 911 callers faster and more accurately than they have ever been able to before.

by Frank Schultz, The Janesville Gazette / November 12, 2019
Shutterstock/TheaDesign

(TNS) — Emergency dispatch operators in Rock County, Wis., have a new tool that allows them to track 911 callers faster and more accurately than ever before.

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The service is free to registered 911 centers from RapidSOS Clearinghouse, a company formed by former Federal Communications Commission commissioners, according to news reports.

Dispatchers can start a search for the cellphone within seconds by keying in the phone number. A Google map with a dot representing the phone appears almost instantly, said Kathy Sukus, director of Rock County Communications.

The dispatcher can then track the phone’s movements.

Sukus said the tool has already been put to use, guiding Janesville police to a caller who was suspected of being suicidal and who became evasive.

“We could see where he was walking,” Sukus said.

Sukus said dispatchers led police to the man. She did not know the outcome.

At first blush, the technology seems to pose questions about privacy and government intrusion, but Sukus said:

It only works if someone calls 911. No one can use it to track a pre-selected number.

The system is active for a matter of minutes after each call comes in and then it shuts down, so if dispatchers don’t begin tracking promptly, they lose the ability to do so later.

Because of those two features, it could not be abused by a 911 employee for personal reasons or by police wanting to track someone because, again, it doesn’t work unless that particular phone calls 911 and the tracking feature is engaged quickly.

Police who want information on a cellphone’s location must continue to do as they have in the past and submit a search warrant signed by a judge to the technology company, Sukus said.

Red circles on a monitor at the Rock County Communications Center in Janesville show the general location of a cellphone used to call 911. Other red markers show where the phone has been.

The system works even if someone turns off the phone’s location function, because calling 911 turns it back on, Sukus said.

The technology works for hang-up calls, or for someone who starts talking and then is cut off, but the dispatcher must start the process promptly, Sukus said.

That feature could come in handy “if someone abruptly takes the phone from them or something bad happens,” she said.

Attackers in domestic violence incidents often try to break phones or otherwise keep the victim from calling.

About 85% of Rock County 911 calls are from wireless phones, Sukus said, so the new tool is a valuable one.

Despite the new capability, “we still encourage people to tell us their location (when they call 911) because we don’t want to rely on the technology,” Sukus said.

The technology works for iPhones of the IOS version 12 or newer and Android phones version 4 or newer.

The IOS 12 came out in June 2018; the Android 4 in 2011.

RapidSOS also accesses data from Apple, Google, MedicAlert, Uber, wearable technologies such as Fitbits and connected homes and cars. The number of different programs and devices is expected to expand, Sukus said.

Devices don’t need to be modified to allow a dispatcher access to the GPS data. It’s automatic, Sukus said.

The new RapidSOS Clearinghouse technology works with Google Maps to show the current and former locations of a cellphone that has been used to call 911.

Sukus said the 911 center already had the ability to direct responders to a cellphone’s location, but it was accurate only to 100 meters—about the length of a football field—and is more cumbersome to use. The new system is accurate to within 15 meters, or about 49 feet.

RapidSOS doesn’t work with the dispatch center’s number for nonemergency reporting, 608-757-2244.

Wisconsin and other states are working to upgrade their 911 systems to something called Next Generation 911, which will have many of the same features and could be here in three to five years, Sukus said.

Next Generation 911 will be able to tell how high off the ground the cellphone is, but RapidSOS can’t, she said. 

©2019 The Janesville Gazette (Janesville, Wis.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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