Uber can find you. 9-1-1 may not


Seconds matter when you call 911, but a troubling fact you may not realize when you're calling for help from a cell phone, your location is not always provided to the 911 operator.

"We can refresh the computer and get a little closer, even then we may only get within 150 feet," said Mobile County 911 Director Charlie McNichol. "Very seldom are we right on the spot."

And not knowing exactly where a caller is, has proven to be deadly.

Shanell Anderson was delivering newspapers when her SUV careened into a pond in suburban Atlanta in 2015. She told the operator exactly where she was, but her call to 911 was picked up by a cell tower in a neighboring county and 911 dispatchers couldn't find her on their map. It took first responders 20 minutes to get to her and by then it was too late.

"There have been cases where it’s taken 20-30 minutes before they could get to them," said Baldwin County 911 Director Chris Heger.

Heger says a third of the cell phone calls coming into 911 last month didn't have an address associated with it, just the cell phone tower where the call was hitting. Heger says it's been an issue especially with tourists who don't know where they are or people in high rises at the beach, who are unable to say what floor they’re on.

"The person was like on the 7th floor and they were able to zero in on it, but they had to search floor by floor and knock on doors to find the person in distress," said Heger.

Heger and McNichol say the Federal Communications Commission has be too lenient with cell phone providers. It was just last month, the FCC required all providers give dispatchable locations for 40% of all wireless 911 calls. And it's not until 2021 that it will require that percentage go up to 80%. That means 1/5 calls will still not have an exact location.

"It's frustrating that the FCC will not seem to mandate to the telephone industry to push the latest and greatest GPS location technology to our industry," said McNichol.

While Mobile County couldn't tell us what percentage of calls didn't come in with an exact location, Heger says in Baldwin County last year 74% of the wireless calls received came in initially with no location information. In Escambia County, Florida 20% didn't, and in Santa Rosa County, 57% did not have exact location. While we were at the 911 center in Robertsdale, our call to 911 from a smartphone took one minute to recognize a location. Initially, it only showed the cell tower the call was hitting.

"All have the capability to receive the location information. Unfortunately, the cell phone providers aren't transmitting the location. And that is frustrating," said Heger.

By the FCC's own estimates, 10,120 lives could be saved annually if location accuracy with cell phone calls improved. Just this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that three former FCC leaders are investing in a startup company that will work to provide exact locations from wireless calls.