911 and cellphones: The disconnect to find your location in an emergency

KCTV5 is taking a closer look what happens when you call 911 from your cell phone. (KCTV5)

KCTV5 is taking a closer look what happens when you call 911 from your cell phone.

A local woman’s call for help prompted our investigation.

Shannon Keithley was robbed and raped inside her Kansas City, KS home. She called police but was unable to share her address. Police say they could not find her because she called from a wireless device.

Keithley was eventually able to escape her attacker and called 911 a second time. She crashed while she was on the phone. Keithley died at the scene. Her family was notified about her death and her attack.

“That was just devastating. I couldn't understand why they didn't go to meet with her the first time?” questioned Keithley's sister, Heather Isbell.

Keithley's case is not isolated

Every year, there are tragic examples of people calling for help from wireless devices and first responders not being able to find them.

A woman near Atlanta called for help when her car slid into a pond. Her wireless call bounced to a nearby tower and sent her call for help to the wrong jurisdiction. The dispatcher could not locate Shannell Anderson.

Crucial minutes rolled by and when rescuers finally found Anderson unresponsive. She later died.

The FCC says improving location accuracy on phones could save 10,000 lives a year.

Why is this a problem?

The majority of emergency phone calls for help are now from wireless devices, but the 911 systems were designed for landlines.

Here’s what that means. If you call for help from a corded phone, dispatchers see address and name associated with the phone. But if you call for help from a wireless device all dispatchers see is a phone number. And the location information they receive is limited and often wrong.

That reality stunned Keithley’s family.

“I didn't know that. In this day and age you can be pinpointed when you are playing Pokemon or something like that. I don't understand why emergency services don't have the ability to locate somebody like that,” said Brian Isball, Keithley’s brother-in-law.

KCTV5 worked with the senior technologist at the Mid America Regional Council (MARC) which houses the communications software to better understand the problem and what dispatchers see.

“We are completely dependent on the carriers to provide location information. There's nothing we can do here to improve it. Unfortunately,” said Hassan Al-Rubaie, the senior technologist for MARC.

Right now, cell phone carriers are only required to be accurate within 50 meters and that location information only has to be accurate 40 percent of the time.

If this was school, cell phone carriers would fail. But this is government standards for your real life emergencies. And Kansas City’s system doesn’t even use that failing standard. They use 150 meters.

“Dispatchers are trained to know, the location I get is probably not accurate,” explained Al-Rubaie.

KCTV5’s investigation continues

We tested wireless phones and text to 911 with the senior technologist for the system. That report airs Tuesday at 10 p.m.

We are also looking at different apps and software solutions that claim to improve location accuracy. These programs are being launched in other states.

In the meantime, police and first responders advise everyone to share location information as quickly as possible if you call for help from a cell phone.

Copyright 2017 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.


Investigative Reporter

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