When a person calls 911 from a cellphone, they trust dispatchers on the other end of the line will be in the same county. However, that’s not always the case.
Last week, three Columbus men were killed when the car they were riding in ran off Officer’s Lake Road and hit a tree in Lowndes County. Two people survived and one of them called 911 from their cell phone.
Although the accident happened in Lowndes County, the closest cellphone tower picked up the call and transferred it to Clay County dispatchers. The accident occurred several miles from the Clay County line.
Clay County Sheriff Eddie Scott said 911 received the call at 1:35 a.m. When the victim was unable to tell dispatchers his location, GPS services were used to determine his exact whereabouts. Dispatchers then notified Lowndes County law enforcement. Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Marc Miley said it took deputies approximately 10 minutes to locate the accident scene.
Rise in cellphone 911 calls
Cellphone company CSpire estimates 70 percent of 911 calls are made from mobile devices.
Dave Miller with CSpire said that number is continuing to rise.
“For many consumers in Mississippi and around the U.S., the ability to call 911 for help in an emergency is one of the main reasons they own a wireless phone,” he said. “Other wireless 911 calls come from good Samaritans reporting traffic accidents, crimes or other emergencies. The prompt delivery of wireless 911 calls to public safety organizations benefits the public by promoting safety of life and property.”
However, while many cellphones are GPS equipped, some 911 call centers cannot track a phone’s exact location. That can be problematic for first responders.
“While wireless phones can be an important public safety tool, they also create unique challenges for emergency response personnel and wireless service providers,” he said. “Since wireless phones are mobile, they are not associated with one fixed location or address. While the location of the cell site closest to the 911 caller may provide a general indication of the caller’s location, that information is not usually specific enough for rescue personnel to deliver assistance to the caller quickly.”
FCC helps pinpoint location
To combat that problem, the Federal Communications Commission adopted guidelines and regulations to improve location accuracy in such an instance.
According to Miller, the FCC’s wireless 911 rules apply to all wireless licenses, broadband Personal Communications Service (PCS) licensees and certain Specialized Mobile Radio (SMR) licensees. Mobile Satellite Service (MSS) providers, however, are currently excluded.
The FCC created Phase I and Phase II 911 rules. Phase I requires the wireless provider to transfer the 911 call to the closest 911 call center, regardless of whether the caller subscribes to the provider’s service or not, Miller said.
Phase II requires the wireless service providers to give dispatchers the telephone number of the originator of a wireless 911 call and the location of the cell site or base station transmitting the call, he said.
Both Lowndes County 911 and Clay County 911 are Phase II equipped, meaning not only are they able to tell the region where the 911 call was placed, but they are able to tell the exact latitude and longitude, as well.
‘Not an everyday thing, but it can happen’
Clay County 911 director Treva Hodge said situations like last week’s accident happen, but it’s not a regular occurrence.
“It’s not an everyday thing but it can happen,” Hodge said. “The cellphone technology is not a perfect science. It can happen but that’s why we answer, ‘Clay County 911’ so the caller can tell from the first moment what county they’ve reached.”
Hodge noted Sunday’s accident and the fact that people may not always be aware of their location when driving.
“People don’t pay attention when they’re traveling and if they run off the road into a gully, they have no clue where they are,” she said. “With the phase II we are able to get a location on them.”
Once a dispatcher can tell the caller is in a neighboring county, the call is immediately transferred to the correct county, Hodge said.
“We can actually transfer any call that comes in with one button,” she said. “We have all of our neighboring counties on the screen, they literally click Lowndes County and that call automatically transfers, it’s that quick. They stay on the line and make sure the call has connected and can actually hear the dispatcher and caller talking. We’re talking a few seconds.”
Teamwork is key
When a call is diverted into a neighboring county, Miley said it is imperative for agencies to work together. Law enforcement agents from Clay County and Lowndes County searched for the victims in Sunday’s accident until the car was found.
“Most of the times we are able to track a caller through GPS but a lot of times it doesn’t work like that,” he said. “It may give us a general area, but that general area may give us a larger area to cover. So it’s very important to work with neighboring counties. You have to work together.”
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.
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