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​News 5 Investigates: 911 doesn’t always know exactly where wireless callers are located

The problem is not unique to Colorado. In fact, dispatch centers nationwide still struggle to find people who call for help using a cell phone.

If apps like Uber, Lyft, Waze and Google Maps know exactly where you are, why doesn’t 911?

A News 5 investigation found the problem can be attributed to cell phone privacy settings and outdated mapping technology dispatch centers currently use.

On occasion, dispatchers may not know your location at all and will rely solely on you to tell them where you are so they can send help your way. ​

Most of the time, dispatchers are able to pinpoint an approximate location when your cell phone pings off a tower, but sometimes cell towers are miles away from where you are located.

Thursday night at 10:00, News 5 Investigates takes you behind the scenes to show you some of the challenges dispatchers are up against when people call 911 from a cell phone.

We’ll also show you the major mapping system upgrades coming to one dispatch center in our region that will will help pinpoint your precise location and get help to you faster.

When you call 911 from a wireless device: 

  • Your cell phone signal will ping off a nearby tower and route to a dispatch center
  • When dispatchers answer the phone, they usually get a “Phase 1” location. This location is the cell tower address, not your exact location.
  • Within 30 seconds, the computer system generates a “Phase 2” location. This location is a lot more accurate, but it’s still not exact. Typically, it’s within 50 meters.
  • Sometimes 911 computer systems don’t always “refresh” to give dispatchers a “Phase 2” location, so they’ll have to do it manually

*Depending upon your wireless carrier and signal strength, some calls to 911 will bypass “Phase 1” and give dispatchers a “Phase 2” location which helps expedite the dispatch process

Frequently asked questions: 

Q: Does my cell phone carrier have any impact on how easily 911 can locate me?

A: It certainly can depending upon how many nearby cell towers cater to your specific service vendor. Unfortunately, some people will sign up for cell phone service without first verifying service availability in their region. We know it’s 2019, but Colorado has a lot of rural areas where some cell phone carriers still don’t offer service. Even if you don’t have internet connectivity or 4G LTE service, you should still be able to dial 911.

Q: What if I’m calling from inside a building and I’m on the 11th or 12th floor. Will dispatchers be able to know what floor I’m on in the event I’m unable to speak?

A: Dispatch centers nationwide are starting to upgrade their computer systems to have enhanced 911 mapping technology. Dispatch centers which have this technology can get X, Y, and Z coordinates. This means dispatchers will not only have latitude and longitude coordinates, but they’ll also be able to tell what floor of a building you’re on.

Our full investigation can be found here.

Eric Ross

Eric Ross

Eric Ross is the chief investigative reporter/executive producer at News 5. If you have a story idea or news tip, please send an email to eross@KOAA.com or call 719-228-6275.
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