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KTUL investigates: Can 911 track your cellphone call?

Today's smartphones are often too smart for the 9-1-1 systems we're calling. (KTUL)

The majority of calls coming into 911 centers across the country are from cellphones. At the Tulsa County 911 center, that’s exactly what’s happening. But the problem is dispatchers can’t always figure out where you are.

It’s a big change from the days of landlines, which automatically display the caller's address to the 911 dispatcher.

“It’s a challenge, our biggest challenge, especially if they don’t know where they are. There are legitimate reasons where someone might not know where they’re at,” said Kimberly Faxon, a dispatcher at the 911 center.

Faxon has worked at the Tulsa County 911 center for more than 20 years. She said it’s now easier for folks to call 911 when they have a cellphone right in their hand.

“Call load is so much heavier than when I first came to Tulsa. We had busy times, now there’s no slow time, it’s all busy time because of cellphones,” said Faxon.

When a person calls 911 on their cellphone, the cellphone provider is supposed to help dispatchers out. The call is supposed to hit two cellphone towers to triangulate where the caller is. Dispatchers have to be accurate too. Technology is supposed to find your location within 50 to 300 meters, a requirement by the FCC.

“At 71st and Memorial, where do you start looking?” asked Faxon.

Faxon agreed to let Channel 8’s I-team test cellphone accuracy right inside the Tulsa County 911 center. Channel 8 tried the five largest cellphone carriers in Tulsa.

US Cellular -- The 911 system placed us several hundred yards away. Here’s a statement from US Cellular.

Thank you for bringing your recent test to our attention. At U.S. Cellular, we are committed to improving 911 reliability and public safety. In the first quarter of 2017, we were able to locate 911 callers on our network in the Tulsa area within 50 meters approximately 87.7% of the time. While we are pleased with these results, we will continue to work with the FCC and local 911 centers to improve location accuracy to the highest degree possible. Many factors impact location accuracy, including whether the caller is in a building, surrounding topography, weather and the number of towers in the area.
Several years ago, the FCC adopted rules for a multi-year process to improve 911 location accuracy. Along with the wireless industry and public safety community, we are collectively working with the FCC on enhancements that will incrementally permit a higher percentage of 911 callers’ specific locations to be identified. More information on the multi-year plan to improve the 911 system is available here: https://www.fcc.gov/public-safety-and-homeland-security/policy-and-licensing-division/911-services/general/location-accuracy-indoor-benchmarks.

T-Mobile -- The 911 system put us within 15 yards of the 911 center. Here’s a statement from T-Mobile.

T-Mobile is testing several promising partner technologies to improve the accuracy of customer location-based services, and we are seeing promising results. If the test results remain positive, we plan to deploy these technologies later this year.

Sprint -- The 911 system also placed us several hundred yards away.

AT&T -- The 911 system placed us on the front walk of the 911 center.

Verizon -- For about three minutes, Verizon couldn’t figure out where we were. After that time, it placed us in a field behind the 911 center.

When we reached out to Sprint, AT&T and Verizon for comment, media relations directed us to the CTIA, an organization that represents cellphone carriers. They sent us this statement.

In the U.S., over 300 million mobile deviceswith different capabilities, from feature phones to smartphonescan be used to call 9-1-1, and over 6,000 different 9-1-1 centerswith varying technical capabilities and authoritiesrespond to these 9-1-1 calls. And while America’s geography is wonderfully diversefrom dense urban environments to rural landscapesthe FCC requires wireless carriers to meet 9-1-1 location accuracy requirements across them all.
CTIA and our wireless industry member companies are working with the public safety community and the FCC to harness innovative technologies that are enhancing our wireless 9-1-1 location accuracy capabilities today, especially indoors. Vendors of 9-1-1 location technologies are welcome to demonstrate that their technologies can truly enhance our 9-1-1 location accuracy capabilities by participating in the independent testing programs required by the FCC. (For more information, see: www.911locationtestbed.org).
-- Matt Gerst, Assistant Vice President of Regulatory Affairs

All five carriers basically told Channel 8’s I-team the accuracy of tracking a call depends on the technology available at the 911 centers as well as where the call is coming from. That’s exactly what Channel 8 found out when the I-team tested 911 calls in Jenks.

With permission from authorities, Channel 8 tested 911 calls from within the 911 center, outside the 911 center and in downtown Jenks to see if dispatchers could locate us. The majority of the time, the results were right on.

Kurt Bickle, with INCOG, said a lot of factors play into locating 911 calls, including technology at each 911 center. For example, Jenks has a different locating system than the Tulsa County 911 center.

“The smartphones are ahead of the technology that resides in the 911 center, for them to get that location into their system,” said Bickle.

He works with cellphone companies to make sure cell towers are sending calls to the correct 911 center.

“I can pull up an app right now and hit the GPS button, it’s going to put the dot right on top of this building," said Bickle. "I could call 911 from here and it would put me across the street. “

Bickle said even though there is a ways to go when it comes to tracking cellphone calls, things are heading in the right direction.

“There are imperfections in the system but we are still, there are so many lives that are saved now because you’re immediately on the phone with that dispatcher,” said Bickle.

Back at the Tulsa County 911 center, Faxon said dispatchers do everything they can to find callers.

“That fear of knowing that someone needs help, and we can’t get it to them,” said Faxon.

Dispatchers said technology can be helpful, but any information that you can provide on the phone is much more reliable.

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