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911 Is Receiving Inaccurate Location Data From Cell Phone Calls

Raleigh/Wake Emergency Communications Center
Dave DeWitt

If you use a cell phone to call 9-1-1 from your home or office, there's a good chance the dispatch center will receive inaccurate coordinates to your location. That's according to a report from the Federal Communications Commission.

Wireless providers deliver location information to 9-1-1 centers with each call. Land line calls include a name and address. The FCC established location accuracy standards when people generally used land lines at home and cell phones on the road. But now, 70 percent of 9-1-1 calls come from cell phones.

Cell phone calls offer dispatch the nearest cell phone tower and a general location. That technology doesn't work well if the caller is indoors. Nearly half of cell phone calls to 9-1-1 in North Carolina offer limited or completely inaccurate location data, sometimes reporting a spot miles away from the caller.

Johnston County 9-1-1 Director Jason Barbour says this really slows response time.

“You know, we don't need your cell phone to tell us you're in Clayton when you're actually in Smithfield,” he says.

Barbour says the technology exists to get more accurate location information from cell phones, but the FCC hasn't demanded it from wireless companies. Barbour says following inaccurate location information is a disservice to victims, especially if the caller is lost or unable to speak.

“When somebody dials 9-1-1, they're already in a crisis. So we need to make sure all available technology is in play.”

Barbour wants the FCC to enforce a higher technology standard for wireless providers. The agency says it's reviewing input from emergency services, businesses and the public.

Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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