Historically, 911 dispatchers have been unable to track the locations of callers on cell phones as accurately as those calling from landlines. This is surprising, considering how readily your phone shares GPS information with everything from pizza shops to electric scooters. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has enacted location-sharing rules for cellular carriers, but they’re rolling out in increments and they allow an unsettling amount of leeway.
Currently, cellular carriers must abide by the FCC’s Enhanced 911 (E911) rules, which have increasingly strict requirements. At present, they require nationwide carriers to provide latitude and longitude location-tracking capabilities to 911 dispatchers that are accurate within 50-300 meters, depending on the type of technology the carrier uses. This location information must be available for at least 50% of wireless 911 calls, a requirement which increases to 70% in 2020.
That could mean up to a 984-foot permissible radius, which entails a difficult search in high-density areas. Furthermore, the FCC rules allow up to six minutes to determine your location before the carrier is considered in violation. Altogether, this represents a huge volume of calls with no or slow-to-populate location data. It’s easy to see how this set of requirements could fall short when time is of the essence, as it has in Georgia, Florida and elsewhere.
The good news? Recent updates to the Android and iPhone operating systems have dramatically improved smartphones’ ability to automatically share exact locations with emergency dispatchers, but this technology doesn’t cover non-smart phones or ones that are out of date. Even with these improvements, the nearest cell tower might be in a different city or county, which requires 911 operators to reach across borders or city lines to send first responders.
One more potential issue: What happens if you call 911 from a cell phone and hang up? If there’s a reason to believe there’s danger, 911 dispatchers say that they will request your phone number from the carrier and attempt to return your call to follow up. If they can’t retrieve your number, they are likely to send an officer to your estimated location, which may or not be accurate.