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Fatal Flaw: Why 911 centers are behind on tracking cell phone users

911 Call Centers Behind on GPS Tracking

If you call 911 from a cell phone, there's a chance help may not be able to find you.

Hamilton County's Executive Director for Emergency Communications John Stuermer says less than half of calls made from a cell phone actually give your location.

"People should be concerned and we in the industry are very frustrated," Stuermer said.

When you call 911 from a landline it will show your exact address and phone number.

When cell phones became popular in the 1990's Stuermer says it made finding people difficult.

"Originally we didn't get anything but the phone number then this technology started to advance where we got location information," he said.

Stuermer says they get two types of calls from a cell phone, depending on how advanced the carrier's technology.

Phase 1 will give the address of the tower closest to the caller.

Phase 2 will give an estimated location of the actual caller.

"Right now unfortunately about 50% of our 911 calls are still Phase 1 which means we are just getting antenna information," he said.

Melissa Garner lives on River Road in Murray County.

A cell phone tower directs her 911 calls to Whitfield County.

Even then, she says first responders don't get an exact address.

"My neighbor actually had a medical emergency and she's, I think, got COPD and we watched the ambulance actually go up and down the road 3 or 4 times before we flagged them down and asked them who they were looking for," Garner said.

Apps like Uber and Google maps can tell exactly where you are using GPS. So why can't 911 do the same?

Wi-Fi hotspots help GPS locate you quickly but if everyone tries to use them at one time, Stuermer says can be a disaster.

"If you have a major catastrophe hot spots are going to go away, so we need to have a 911 service that not only works in the 911 environment but also works in the catastrophe environment," he said.

We decided to test Hamilton County's 911 system.

First, we called using an AT&T phone.

The screen at a telecommunicator's desk shows where a call is coming from.

For that call, it showed we were about 100 feet away.

The Verizon call showed up about a half mile away. That was the location of the closest cell tower.

The dispatcher was able to ask for a rebid, or more information, from Verizon which typically takes anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute.

She was then able to narrow down the location to a tenth of a mile.

"It can be kind of nerve-wracking when you hear someone upset, especially when it's a high intensity phone call," one dispatcher said.

Stuermer says a difference of 100 feet may not sound like a big deal, but it can be.

"You look at an apartment complex, that's a lot of apartments and then there's no information for up or down as well," he said.

We asked Steurmer what it will take to get a new system in place.

He says carriers should update their systems to immediately provide location information.

But they aren't required to do that.

Read More (News Channel 9)

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