What Everyone Should Know

We’ve all come to accept that if we find ourselves in an emergency situation we can dial 911 from our home phone and get help from an operator who will dispatch paramedics, police, or other emergency services.

[1]Unfortunately, many emergencies arise when we don’t have access to a landline.  Cell phone and wireless calls make up 70% of requests for help on 911.  And because growing numbers of households are discontinuing their landline service and relying solely on cell phones, that percentage is expected to increase dramatically.   Most people don't realize 911 calls from cell phones aren’t as easily handled as those from a home phone.


Cell Phone 911 Calls

My Personal Experience

I would have expected that the GPS on my smart phone would make us easy to find when my husband recently had a heart attack outside the local Performing Arts Center.  Instead, I was presented with questions from the 911 operator like “In which county are you?”  “What is the address where you are?”  “What are your cross streets?”   The only question I was able to answer was my county name.  

You may wonder why I didn’t know the address.  We were in the Performing Arts Center complex, surrounded by towering buildings that didn’t have address numbers on them.  I’m sure they would have spoiled the aesthetics of all the glass and chrome.  But how could I not know the cross streets?  Because we arrived with a group on a bus.  I was enjoying the scenery along the way and didn’t make note of the street names as we arrived, something I would have been aware of if we had been in our car.   Eventually someone from the bus ran to the corner and got the cross street names for me so I could relay them to the dispatcher.  Once he had the information I waited while he spoke to someone else.  When his attention came back to me, he made me aware of why there was an initial delay in identifying our location.

What I learned that night surprised me.  But I wasn’t alone.   I’ve since questioned hospital workers, nurses in Intensive Care Units who see the people who make those 911 calls, and other medical workers, and not one of them knew that cell phones don’t provide dispatchers with your location the same way landlines do.  Most of the time their reaction was, “But my cell phone has GPS!”

How It Works

When you dial 911 from home, that number is fixed to a specific location.  If your phone bill includes your apartment number, 911 will also know that and they can show up at the right door.

While the Federal Communications Commission has ruled that wireless carriers be able to identify your location, even if you don’t have a service contract, the information forwarded is often not detailed enough.  The cell site closest to you, is the only information an operator has when you dial 911 from a mobile phone.  Unfortunately, the cell site may not be specific enough to dispatch emergency personnel.   Consequently, an operator will want to know where you are, either with a street address or cross streets.  With this information, they can zero in on your location and contact services that are nearest and can reach you the fastest.

A very important point to keep in mind is that wireless carriers don’t all use the same means of putting you in contact with emergency services, and 911 cell phone calls may initially get routed to distant locations.  In our case, our call was received by highway patrol.  But which highway patrol office?  I never did ask, but it may not have been anywhere close to us which might explain why the operator didn’t recognize the name of the popular theater complex or the shopping center close by.

Technology is not magic and cell phone 911 calls can present challenges for dispatchers.   Minimal cell sites to transmit calls, along with dense woodlands are just a couple of examples.  

It would be ideal if we all had the information necessary to speed up the 911 process but most of us don’t expect the worse to happen during a fun night out.  And when we have to make that important call, we might be a little rattled.  Days after my experience it occurred to me that if I had been thinking more clearly when I spoke to 911, I might have easily and quickly gotten my cross streets from my own iPhone by asking Siri, “Where am I?”

Despite what seemed at the time like a confusing phone call, it was a fortunate night for us. Paramedics arrived in less than five minutes and handled the situation professionally and swiftly.  Following open-heart surgery, my husband’s recovery is progressing quicker than expected and we are very grateful that calling 911 on our cell phone worked for us.

What You Can Do

When response time is critical, there are things the cell phone caller can do to expedite help.  

• If you own an iPhone and don’t know your location, ask Siri before calling 911.  You can also get the same information with any phone that has GPS.  Having the information available instantly may make a difference if time is critical.

• If you have an emergency in your home and have a landline available, use it instead of your cell phone.

• Create an entry in your phone’s contacts for ICE (in case of emergency).  Emergency responders will look for this.  List the number of the person who should be called if something happens to you and you are unable to communicate.

• If you don’t have a service contract with a phone carrier you can still call 911.  If your call is interrupted for any reason, you must call the operator back because they have no way to trace who or where you are.  They can’t call you back.