Locating cellphone 911 calls is still flawed

Posted at 9:05 AM, Feb 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-17 13:44:51-05

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) - When we call 911, we expect the person who answers on the other end to know exactly where we are.   But more and more, that's not the case because most of those emergency calls are made on cellphones.

Last Friday, John Edwards called 911 while held hostage in a northwest Omaha home.

The system told dispatchers where the cell tower connecting the call was located, but it wasn’t where Edwards was calling from.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office said they first responded to 150th and Blondo streets, but later determined the call came from a home near 140th and Miami streets. It was a difference of a mile.

“Typically people don't think about 911 until they need it. But when they need it, they need it to work,” said Douglas County 911 Director Jenny Hansen.

That call came in at 10:20 a.m. It took police and deputies, and the 911 system until just before 11 to determine where the call was coming from.

Hansen says the system is designed to work best with landlines.

“As mobile as we are: know where you are at all times,” she said.

Today, the Federal Communications Commission requires phones and wireless systems narrow down a 911 caller's location to between 50 and 150 meters, depending on the network type.  

“Our industry is working very hard to do that very quickly because we know the power of the new location technology and what they can do,” said Matt Gerst, the director of regulatory affairs at CTIA, an association representing wireless providers.  Gerst said upgrading the system will entail installing more cell sites, likely onto buildings. 

We've seen call confusion before in the Metro. On a frigid January night in 2005, Michael Wamsley and Janelle Hornickel called 911 from rural Sarpy County while hallucinating on drugs after their truck got stuck.

Deputies couldn't find them and the two froze to death.

More than 10 years later, as new technology is installed, Hansen says people shouldn't assume their phone tell dispatches where they are and to always be aware of their surroundings.

“Where do you start? And if you're able to talk to our dispatcher, our call-taker, on the phone and describe what you’re seeing, where you are as much as you practically can, that certainly helps,” said Hansen.

How common are cellphone calls to 911?

Hansen says, in Douglas County, the majority come from cell phones.

In 2014 and 2015, 80 percent of calls to Sarpy County's 911 Center were also from cellphones.