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911 Won’t Always Know Your Location If You Call From a Cell Phone

Among the networks, AT&T and T-Mobile seem to be the biggest culprits at leaving out pertinent location information when customers make emergency calls

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An emergency call center. Photo: Alfredo Molina

Calling 911 usually means you’d like the person on the receiving in to automatically know your location. But, according to a new report, more and more cellular providers in California are accidentally leaving that detail out, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The study analyzed more than 3 million wireless 911 calls made from 2008 through 2012 handled by emergency call-takers in Bakersfield, Pasadena, San Francisco, San Jose and Ventura County.

It found that in all five areas, fewer than half reached dispatchers with an estimate of the caller’s location in December 2012, ranging from 49% passing along location data in Bakersfield down to just 20% in San Francisco.

Among the networks, AT&T and T-Mobile seem to be the biggest culprits, according to the Times. For an unknown reason, there’s been an uptick in the number of botched emergency location deliveries provided by those networks. Verizon and Sprint, on the other hand, seem to be improving their performance.

In the period studied, AT&T’s rate fell the furthest, dropping from 92% of calls forwarding location data in early 2008 to just 31% at the end of 2012, the report said. T-Mobile’s rate started at 47% and fell to 19%.

When someone calls 911 from a ground line, their exact address automatically pop up on the emergency operator’s end. In 2001, the federal government tried to approximate this for cell users through a mandate that requires cellular providers to send estimated location information to emergency dispatchers when their customers call 911, the Times reports. However, this rule only applies to outdoor callers. For those calling from inside a building, oftentimes the only information provided on their location is the whereabouts of the nearest cell signal tower. 

The Federal Communications Commission has convened industry leaders to help test new rules. A March report concluded that developing a solution could take years to roll out to the public.

Currently, emergency operators receive around 400,000 calls from cell users everday day, the Times reports, accounting for around 70 percent of their total call load.

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