SPECIAL REPORT: 911 Fatal Flaw

SPECIAL REPORT: 911 Fatal Flaw
(Source: WTVM)
(Source: WTVM)

(WTVM) -  Most adults and children know to call 911 if they're ever in an emergency. Now, more than ever, cell phones allow us to ask for help immediately.

But what happens if 911 doesn't know your exact location?

In a special report, our Jose Zozaya takes us behind the scenes of a local emergency dispatch center, discovering your cell phone may pose problems for responders.

From an early age, people are taught to dial those three numbers if they ever need police, firefighters, or paramedics to come help.

But in the age of smart phones, ride-sharing apps and GPS navigation, how do emergency responders pinpoint an exact location?

Grenoda Wilder has been the training supervisor for Columbus' 911 Dispatch Center for 17 years. We asked her to walk us through what emergency phone operators have to do once they answer a distressing call.

"The call comes in," Wilder said. "They are to answer the call within 10 seconds. They are to again, ask for the address of the emergency. What's the telephone you're calling from? What's the problem? Tell me exactly what happened. That allows the caller to inform the call taker what the exact problem is."

The dispatch center currently uses a computer-aided dispatch system, or CAD, to pull up all registered addresses made from homes or businesses.

Wilder says two key programs that help dispatchers connect responders to citizens are the Automatic Number Identification, or ANI, and Automatic Location Identification, or ALI.

"So when someone actually dials 911, then we are able to see exactly where they're calling from," Wilder said. "If they're at a residence, the name that's in the phone number database will pop up, and of course the phone number."

In those instances, operators quickly relay that information to responders.

However, calling 911 became a struggle for Michael Martin when he needed it the most.

"I grew up in a very rural part of the United States in Indiana, and actually had an incident where my father fell off the roof of our childhood home," Martin said. "And despite having a cell phone, he wasn't able to reach first responders because cell reception was so weak."

But when those cell phone calls do come in, it's not exact science.

"I wish that it would give us the exact location that the caller is at," Wilder said. "When they call from a cell phone, then all we're getting… basically, we're not getting the address where they are. We are getting the tower address if you will.'

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports three out of four of all 911 calls in 2015 came from cell phones, but if you use this, emergency responders may only know the closest cell phone tower to your location. Even then, it can only provide operators with a general area, and not your physical address.

Wilder said this is why it's crucial if you're calling from a mobile phone to answer the most important question first.

"A lot of people that call 911, they assume that we already know where they are, assume that we already have the phone number," Wilder said. "With the cell phone, we ask for the information. What's the address of your emergency?"

But what if the person, on a mobile phone, cannot communicate their emergency with their voice?

Startups across the nation are developing the newest technology that may help 9-1-1 centers save time and save lives.

Martin is the founder of RapidSOS and the Haven App, which he says works similarly to when a person uses UBER or LYFT.

In practice, wireless networks and GPS will pick up the app's signal and transmit all vital information to dispatch centers.

"And basically by tapping one of the four tiles, we're able to capture your location, they type of help you need and can connect you, over voice, to the nearest 911 dispatcher," Martin said.

The good news, Martin says, is some police departments and emergency agencies across the country are starting to adopt these systems. In fact, he says, they took the initiative to improve the technology they use.

"The public safety community is on the first lines of this challenge," Martin said. 'We've spent four years in collaboration with over 2,000 911 dispatchers, hundreds of agencies across the United States to test and develop this technology."

Another option on the table is text to 911. While the F.C.C. does state most consumers cannot reach 911 by text, there are more and more wireless services, as well as dispatch centers, that are working to offer this option.

Wilder believes Columbus will join those ranks.

"Text to 911, I think it's definitely coming in the future," Wilder said. "When exactly it will come into play, I'm not sure."

The FCC expects text-to-911 will be available across the country in the near future.

As of 2016, some states in the Southeast, including Georgia, have already implemented that technology, but only sparingly since many agencies still prefer you call and tell 911 where you are.

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