Common Problems with 911 Calls from Cell Phones

In today’s age, when cell phones are everywhere and a growing portion of people do not even have a land line, 911 is becoming a less efficient way to report an emergency. 911 lines and technology were all developed before the age of cell phones. With landlines, computers can instantly associate an inbound call with an address and direct the call to authorities in the area. But, with cell phones, it’s not that easy. Calling 911 on a cell phone will indeed put a caller through to local emergency services, but maybe not as local as you need.

Calling 911 in Oakland, California, for instance, will put callers through to California Highway Patrol, who would then re-route the call to appropriate authorities after discerning who that might be, all wasting precious time in a potentially life-threatening situation. The Oakland Police Department has even gone so far as to ask citizens not to call 911 from a cell phone.

Another problem with calling 911 from a cell phone is that responders won’t immediately know where to find you. Imagine losing the signal or dropping your phone while running for your life before you’ve had a chance to give your location. Emergency responders would have no idea where to find you.

This doesn’t mean that mobile 911 is not crucial, and even required by federal law. The Federal Communications Commission requires all wireless carriers to transmit mobile 911 calls to a “Public Safety Answering Point”, or PSAP regardless of whether the caller is an active subscriber or not. The law also requires that: “Within six minutes of a valid request by a PSAP, [the carrier must] provide the PSAP with the telephone number of the originator of a wireless 911 call and the location of the cell site or base station transmitting the call.” Six minutes can be a long time in a life-or-death situation. And that doesn’t give responders your exact location, just the cell tower that the call went through. Starting in 2012, however, carriers will be required to provide emergency personnel with the exact latitude and longitude of a 911 caller to within 300 meters.

So what to do when there’s a real emergency? Experts recommend contacting local emergency response agencies to ask what number they would recommend for specific emergencies and save those numbers in your phone. Do this for every community in which you regularly spend time. If you can’t find numbers online or in a phone book then call the Police Department’s non-emergency number during business hours and ask them. In addition, check to see if the states you drive in have special cell numbers for highway emergencies.

The most important thing to remember when calling 911 from a cell phone is to divulge your location first, then describe the nature of the emergency. If you don’t know an address, find a business close by or some other landmark to help emergence personnel discern your location. Also, provide emergency services with your phone number. If the call is disconnected, they can either call you back or enlist the help of your carrier in finding you.  

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