Cell phones present challenge for 911 dispatchers

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Every time someone uses a cell phone to call 911, it’s directed to the Erie County Public Safety building downtown. It’s been that way for years. But it presents some unique challenges for dispatchers.

The biggest challenge, officials say, is pinpointing your location, especially if you’re unable to provide it.

Traditional landlines automatically provide your name and exact address to dispatchers. Cell phones, which use GPS technology, don’t. And their location isn’t as accurate. That’s why knowing where you are is critical.

“When you’re calling for help, we want to know that right off the bat,” said John Glascott, commissioner of Erie County Central Police Services.

It’s a growing concern for Glascott because not only has the overall call volume increased, but nine out of 10 calls during the month of August, came from cell phones.

“Certainly over the last eight months, we’ve seen significant increases,” Glascott said. “So, not only is the increase causing us some concern, but the increase to the increase is causing some additional concerns.”

Of the more than 550,000 calls dispatchers answered in 2013, 84 percent were from cell phones. The number has grown steadily. By August, that jumped to its highest level ever: 90 percent.

“Last month, the month of August, we, for the first time, saw that 90 percent of the calls coming into this 911 center were cell phone calls,” he said. “That’s up from, we were in the 60 percent not that long ago.”

Every cell phone call in Erie County made to 911 is received downtown. It’s then routed to the closest responding agency. The transfer takes just seconds.
But sometimes, there are impediments.

“We do a real good job if you’re outside on a cell phone, being able to triangulate your location. But once you get inside, not so much,” Glascott said.

In fact, location accuracy drops to around 60 percent.

Gone are the days of dispatchers asking what your emergency is. Because of the rise in cell phone use, the question you’ll hear is where.

“When you do call, give us the best location information that you can, which would include apartment numbers, if you’re on a certain floor or in a room number in a building, whatever can help those responders locate you as quickly as possible to get you the help you need,” said Michelle Kerr, deputy director of law enforcement communications.

Another growing technology is Voice Over Internet, services like Vonage, which can be taken with you if you move. That means sometimes your information isn’t updated, even your address. And that means it’s ever more important to let dispatchers know where your emergency is when you call 911.

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