Cover Story: Cell phones and Emergency 911

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

GASTON COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - An elderly man dies in a house fire in Gaston County.  The man who dialed 911, called from his cell phone and didn't have the right address.  In our Cover Story, PrimeTime's Jeff Atkinson reports on why 911 operators say cell phones can make it harder for them to find you in an emergency.

You could hear the neighbor in that 911 call frantically trying to save 79-year old Willie Spearman.  The flames broke out Wednesday morning and consumed the home.

Investigators say smoldering smoking materials caused the fire.

What made the situation so difficult, the neighbor who called 911 didn't have the correct address for the home, delaying firefighters from getting to the scene quicker.

Cell phones make our lives easier in so many ways, but 9-1-1 operators say, for them, it can make the situation more difficult.

Extremely beneficial in an emergency.. but they have their limitations.. and as we saw today-- can make it harder for 911 dispatchers to get help to a scene.

As more people rely on these things.. and ditch their landline phones.. some vital information you need to be aware of.

"You said Ridge Road and Little Mount Road? (unintelligible) Sir, your phone's breaking up."

You can hear the frustration in the dispatcher's voice.

Wanting to send help.. but the message unclear.. the caller uncertain where he is.

"Sir, I don't see a 108 West Westview. Yes sir. (Unintelligible) I don't have one."

Unlike a landline phone.. which sends to Emergency 911 the caller's exact address.. cell phones because they're mobile.. send to 911 the location of the cell tower they are transmitting from.

That tower can be miles away from the scene.

"It takes a lot more time to find out exactly where people are."

Lloyd Moskowitz.. director of Gaston County 911 says with cell phones they have to do a lot more asking now.... taking longer - making the job harder.

"That creates a challenge for us because our system.. the computer is address driven. We need to have some type of street address or at the minimum an intersection to be able to actually send help."

In other words they can't send help until they have an address.. and in an emergency like this morning's fire seconds count.

New generation phones come equipped with a GPS.

Moskowitz took us inside Gaston's 911 to show us how it works.

He placed a call from his cell phone.  Heather the dispather showed us how it shows up in the computer.

"Here's the GPS coordinates. I hit that box. It tells me it's within 220 feet of 828 W. Davidson."

Our location at Gaston county 911.

But not all phones have the GPS feature..

And even on the newer phones at times the GPS doesn't always transmit to 911.

Which is what happened here this morning.

Dispatchers ended up getting a cross street from the caller and then sent help.

Did it delay 911 response?

"The reality was that it probably took us an extra minute perhaps a minute and a half to nail down exactly where this call was coming from. But again this was the only call at that point in time we had. So we were dealing with the best information we had available."

Crews say the extra minute and a half delay wouldn't have prevented today's loss of life.. despite getting an address for a location that didn't exist.. unfortunately a tragic reminder to us.

A majority of the calls they now get into 911 come from cell phones.

So what should we do?

Know where you are when you call 911.. give cross streets.. landmarks if you don't know the address.

Stay calm.  And stay fixed. in today's call-- it was a bad cell.. caller was moving around.. made it a lot more difficult for 911 to hear.