Emergency Disconnect: Putting wireless carriers to the test - KCTV5

Emergency Disconnect: Putting wireless carriers to the test

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KCTV5 News is taking a closer look at what happens when you call 911 from a wireless phone. (KCTV5) KCTV5 News is taking a closer look at what happens when you call 911 from a wireless phone. (KCTV5)
KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) -

KCTV5 News is taking a closer look at what happens when you call 911 from a wireless phone.

We’re doing this because of Shannon Keithley. She called for help when a violent intruder broke into her Kansas City, KS home in the middle of the night.

Police say they couldn’t find her because she called from a cell phone. Keithley was able to escape her attacker and drove off in a panic. She died 90 minutes later in a car crash.

What happened with her call for help has launched a huge on-going investigation at KCTV5.

A computer system operates 911 for the entire region. If you call for help in one of the nine counties, your call goes through the system, and 80 percent of those calls are from cell phones.

KCTV5 tested the four wireless carriers in the area including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. Even if you’re not one of their customers, you use their cell towers. Your provider is simply piggybacking.

Hassan Al-Rubaie is the senior tech specialist who helps manage the 911 system. In our controlled experiment, he prompts the computer for more precise information.

AT&T eventually puts that phone in the building. That’s great, but the structure is six floors tall, and 911 can’t find wireless phones by floor. The hope is that will change someday.

When testing Sprint, we kept getting what’s called phase 1 information, and once again that first information is inaccurate. What dispatchers really want is tighter phase 2 information which tries to locate the phone and then gives a range of where it could be.

Up next was T-Mobile. Again, we get another giant map. It was so big it even showed the airport, and that’s 18 miles away.

After manually asking for more precise information, we were located about three blocks off from our actual location. The margin of error doesn’t include Sixth Street and Broadway which is where we made the call.  

And with wireless calls, dispatchers only see phone numbers. They don’t see the name of the customers or their listed address.

During our emergency call with Verizon, once again, we have a giant zone. And when we tighten it up, the information was wrong.

Verizon said we were at Eighth and Main streets. However, we were outside that zone.

"But this is why when you call 911 and they ask you what's your location because we don’t always know what your location is," Al-Rubaie said.

You may have heard about that new feature where you can text to 911. Make sure you text your address, because a dispatcher only sees coordinates, and then they have to plot it.

The big message from emergency responders is to give your location clearly and do it as one of the first vital pieces of information. But the truth is there are kids who call for help who don’t know addresses and medical emergencies where people can’t speak

And there are cases like Keithly's where victims need help, and, for whatever reason, they can’t say where they’re at.

The FCC says improving accuracy location could save 10,000 lives every year across the United States. 

KCTV5 reached out to all wireless carriers for a response. We have not heard back from T-Mobile. 

Sprint issued the following statement:

We are confident, however, that Sprint’s wireless network complies with FCC regulations and that our subscribers can rely on Sprint for their mobile voice and data needs, including an emergency 9-1-1 call.  Many factors can influence any one wireless call to 9-1-1 for a variety of reasons, but we stand behind our network and its ability to route a 9-1-1 call to the appropriate public safety answering point with available number and location information for the caller.

AT & T issued the following statement:

Public safety is a top priority for AT&T and we are continually looking for ways to improve wireless emergency communications tools for consumers and first responders. AT&T has been actively involved in collaborative efforts between the industry and the public safety community to develop standards for and improve 911 call location accuracy.

CTIA, a wireless industry association, is leading an effort to develop the National Emergency Address Database (NEAD), which is intended to securely provide a dispatchable location to public safety answering points. The FCC has recognized the commitment of AT&T and the other national wireless providers to implement the NEAD.

Verizon referred KCTV5 to their industry spokesperson, CTIA, to issue a statement:

Wireless 9-1-1 location technologies have helped first responders save lives for more than 20 years and the wireless industry, FCC and public safety community are working collaboratively to evaluate new technologies and further enhance accuracy.

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