Calling 911 from a cell phone not always accurate

You most likely feel safer having a cell phone with you. If there is ever an emergency, no matter where you are, you call 911 for help. But recently, the Driskoll family of Greene County found out that sense of security is partly an illusion. 

"Our house alarm went off," said Shannon Driskell. "My second son was in the hallway screaming."

In the middle of the night, when the family needed help the most, 911 dispatch had trouble figuring out where they were calling from. That's because they were using a cell phone.

"I was very irritated and definitely frustrated. I just assumed when you called 911 they would know exactly where I was located," said Sharon Driskell.

Calling 911 from a landline, a telephone connected to the lines on poles, makes a computer in the dispatch center show the number and address of the phone you are using. But, when you make a 911 call from a cell phone, you are sending signals through the air. The tower that picks up your phone's signal may be near, but it isn't enough to tell the dispatcher where to find you. 

"Sometimes a handset does not have a good GPS in it, or they're in a place where they're not getting a good signal, or there's some sort of issue with the carrier or equipment on the delivery of it here," said Captain Matt Haines of the Montgomery County Regional Dispatch Center. 

In fact, when staffers use their own cell phones to test the system inside their own dispatch center, 30 percent of their calls wind up somewhere else. 

"Why that happens, I can't tell you," said Haines. 

Captain Haines believes it all comes down to the Federal Communications Commission requiring cell phone carriers to spend millions of dollars to upgrade their towers. 

"If I was forced to put a letter grade to it, I'd give it a C," said Haines. "I think carriers are doing a satisfactory job, but they can do more." 

The FCC has required that all wireless carriers be able to pinpoint your location for the 911 dispatchers, but the rule is coming in phases and there are plenty of exceptions. 

"As a cell phone user I think we should be informed that using a cell phone and calling 911 is not 100-percent accurate because I don't think that ever comes up", said Shannon. 

In the meantime, when you call 911 from a cell phone, there are two pieces of information the call-taker needs to know immediately: 

  • Tell the call-taker which city you're calling from
  • Tell the call-taker what type of emergency you have
Professional call-takers are trained to get information from you. They're staring at a computer screen that has all the relevant questions, so listen carefully, and answer as concisely as possible so you can get the help you need as quickly as possible. 


The Federal Communications Commission offers these recommendations for calling 911 from a mobile phone:

  • Mention your location first on the phone
  • Quickly give your mobile number to the operator, so the operator can call you back in the case of a disconnection -->Don't program your phone to automatically dial 911 with one button, which can lead to numerous false alarm calls
  • Lock your phone when it's not in use to avoid accidental 911 calls.
  • Create a contact in your phone named ICE (for In Case of Emergency) for people who should be called in the case of an emergency.
  • SOURCE: Federal Communications Commission