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What Floridians should know before calling 911 from a cellphone

In an age when our precise location can be determined by Facebook, Uber and video games, it seems unthinkable that many 911 call centers lack this ability. However, in many cases, these centers don't have the technology to determine where a cellphone call is originating, and it has resulted in the deaths of people who were unable to speak or couldn't provide their location. As the Florida Sheriffs Association president told the Federal Communications Commission last year, "It is now easier than ever for victims to reach 911, but harder than ever for responders to reach them."

Moreover, government regulations designed to remedy the problem call for just 40 percent of cellphone calls to deliver location data to call centers by 2017 and 80 percent four years after that. Currently, the rates vary from as low as 10 percent up to 95 percent. Meanwhile, at least 70 percent of calls to 911 are made from cellphones, and many people no longer have a landline.

So what is the problem and who is responsible for making such seemingly-common technology available to 911 call centers? The FCC has been setting deadlines for making more 911 cellphone calls trackable since the 1990s. However, the deadlines kept getting pushed out.

The problem is that the 911 system was originally designed for landline calls in which the location of the caller is transmitted over wires. However, with a cellphone call, the 911 operator's computer has to digitally ask the caller's cellphone network for the location. This can take time, if it succeeds at all. Indoor calls are the most problematic to track because the original cellphone tracking technology was designed for outdoor calls only. However, in the case of a woman who died after her car became submerged in a pond, her call connected through a cell tower in another town, giving the 911 operator the wrong location.

The FCC is working with the four largest cellphone carriers to address the issue. The goals set for 2017 and 2021, which some believe are not good enough, were determined in conjunction with those carriers. One FCC official says that they are working with Uber and Google to develop a 911 app.

Perhaps if cellphone carriers get hit with enough wrongful death suits by surviving family members of people in Florida and throughout the country whose lives could have been saved with timely emergency response, they will have increased incentive to improve their 911 technology.

Source: USA Today, "911's deadly flaw: Lack of location data" John Kelly and Brendan Keefe, Feb. 22, 2015

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