911 calls made from mobile phones could cause delays

Pamela Crimbchin

Wireless signals are sometimes sent to wrong cell towers

A traffic accident occurs outside of Chipotle on state Route 59. Concerned drivers passing the accident call 911 on their cell phones to alert authorities that help is needed. Emergency responders from Stow and Kent rush to the scene. There is only one problem: There are two Chipotles located on state Route 59.

“The people were in Stow on 59 in front of the new Chipotle,” said Alisen Butcher, Kent City Police dispatcher. “A couple 911 calls went to Stow first, and then Stow transferred them here because they said they were on 59 in Kent in front of Chipotle.”

Cell phones are what the majority of students use to communicate, but without the help of landline addresses, emergency responses can become delayed.

“As you’re well aware, there are no walls in the sky,” said Matthew Radigan, police support services manager for Kent State University Police. “So it’s entirely possible for a variety of things to happen.”

When an emergency call comes in from a landline telephone, it is directly connected to the correct dispatch for that area. An address immediately appears on the dispatcher’s screen, and he or she is then able to send emergency vehicles to the scene right away.

When someone calls 911 from a cell phone, the signal is sent to the closest tower available. That tower goes to a public safety answering point, or PSAP. Portage County has six PSAPs including Kent State University and the city of Kent.

“Because these antennas are a wireless signal, you can’t be sure that the call coming in belongs to that area,” said Jon Barber, Portage County 911 coordinator. “And so it’s not an exact science.”

The dispatcher who receives the cell phone call is usually able to trace the carrier of the phone and its number.

He or she is also able to do a rebid, which sends a signal to the cell phone in order for the dispatcher to receive the phone’s GPS location. This way the dispatcher knows the approximate latitude and longitude of where the cell phone is.

“The system in place is capable of finding a cell phone within 100 feet of where it is,” Barber said.

Barber said the rebid happens within 18 seconds of the dispatcher receiving the cell phone call.

After the dispatcher determines where the emergency is by speaking with the person on the phone and using the rebid, he or she then determines which jurisdiction the incident is occurring.

Because the cell phone signal hits off the closest available tower, the PSAP that receives the call may not be the correct PSAP for the jurisdiction of the emergency.

“They’ll say ‘I’m in Kent’ and the sheriff’s office will bump them here,” Butcher said. “At which time, we determine that it’s actually the Sheriff’s Department and we have to bump them back. And that can take probably a couple minutes all together.”

The delay time because of cell phone use can be very minimal or up to a couple minutes. It depends on how well the person calling knows the area and how fast the call can be transferred to the correct jurisdiction.

“We would like to think that from inception of a call to dispatch is within a two-minute range,” Barber said. “We feel it is the outside limit. It should never be more than that.”

Although there is delay, dispatchers are trained to answer and send the emergency responders as fast as possible. Technology for emergency services is also improving to shorten the delay time.

Portage County upgraded to Phase II Emergency Response Technology two years ago, which allows PSAPs to receive and track emergency phone calls from cell phones.

Barber said it cost more than $1 million to upgrade all the PSAPs two years ago to Phase II wireless capabilities. Radigan said it cost approximately $150,000 to upgrade the Kent State University PSAP alone.

The money for these upgrades, as well as maintenance for the systems and future upgrades, comes from a service charge on cell phones. Every Ohio cell phone is charged 28 cents a month for 911 capabilities.

Each state is responsible for how it handles its emergency services fee. Therefore, students who do not have an Ohio cell phone do not pay the cell phone emergency service fees to Ohio.

Portage County’s Phase II technology, however, is already outdated. With Phase II technologies, dispatchers are able to locate the latitude and longitude of the cell phone, but not the altitude.

“If you call from the 10th floor of the library to report an emergency and we don’t know, we have to search the entire library,” Radigan said.

The National Emergency Number Association is working to write the standards for what will be IP-based emergency services.

“Next generation 911 is going to give us the capability to do text messaging, streaming videos through IP-based solutions,” Barber said.

Barber said Portage County is not looking to upgrade its system right away because there is nothing to gain by switching to IP solutions just yet.

“We try not to be – some people call it the cutting edge, we call it the bleeding edge – because it never fails that the first people who get it usually have the most problems,” Barber said.

Even without the upgrade, Portage County is working within its six PSAPs to shorten delay time because of cell phone use, by changing things such as which police station dispatches which fire company.

“They are doing things to try to make things better here,” Barber said. “I think that if we continue down this path, that we will get better with what we are doing.”

Contact public affairs reporter Pamela Crimbchin at [email protected].

Tips for calling 911

• Try to call 911 from a landline whenever possible.

• Know exactly where you are.

“If you’re on 59, where on 59?,” said Alisen Butcher, Kent City Police dispatcher. “We need a bar name, or an address, or a landmark or something. That helps us out a lot.”

• When you first move into a new apartment, call the landlord to find out which jurisdiction includes the apartment. Learn the phone numbers for the jurisdiction’s police station and call them when the situation is not an emergency.

“Pebblebrook, the new ones out by Walmart, is Portage County sheriff’s office,” Butcher said.

• When calling Kent State University Police, use building names and explain what floor of the building you’re on. Don’t try to explain where the building is located.

“They don’t understand that we’re answering the calls on campus,” said Matthew Radigan, police support service manager for Kent State University Police. “That we work for the university.”

• Make sure 911 is not a speed dial or easy button to hit on your phone.

“You’d be amazed at how many ‘butt-dialers’ we get to 911,” Radigan said. “Or backpack-dialers or coat-dialers.”