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911: Most Calls for Help Are Untraceable

“It is the story of how cracks and flaws not just at Somerville Hospital, but throughout our health care system — communication errors, overburdened staffs, lack of fail-safes — can snowball into someone’s unimaginable death.”

-Pete DeMarco describing his wife, Laura Levis’ death to the Boston Globe

 

 

A Romantic Partner and Uber Can Find You, But 911 Can’t
Most people are horrified when they hear news stories about victims of accidents, break-ins, and kidnappings who call 911 and are left to die when emergency personnel are unable to locate them. What many don’t know is that emergency call centers in this country have less robust location tracking services than apps we use for daily conveniences. Uber, Facebook, Google, and dating apps are better equipped to pinpoint your exact location than the dispatcher you reach when you call 911. How is that possible in this day and age?

 

34-Year-Old Woman Dies Just Outside ER After Calling 911
A devastated husband is on a mission to bring attention to the failure of those who should have been able to save his wife’s life. Pete DeMarco has been speaking to news outlets recently about the September 2016 death of his 34-year-old wife, Laura Levis. Laura suffered from asthma and in the middle of an attack, had driven herself to a hospital right outside Boston to be treated. When she arrived close to 4:30 a.m., she stumbled out of her car to the ER, only to find the doors locked. She called 911. She told the dispatcher she was at Somerville Hospital having an asthma attack but that she was unable to get into the ER because the doors were locked. The dispatcher tells her “Let me get you into Somerville. You’re outside?” Laura confirms that she’s outside the hospital and says  “Yes, I’m just at the door. I feel like I’m dying.”

It took 10 minutes for someone to find Laura, who was lying on a bench about 70 yards from the ER entrance. When the 911 dispatcher who took the call relayed details to the police, she didn’t give Laura’s exact location. During her emergency call with Laura, the dispatcher also tried to use cell phone signals to confirm Laura’s location, but it pinged a cell tower almost 18 miles away. Eventually a nurse came out of the ER of Somerville and looked for Laura, but couldn’t find her. Minutes after that, a firefighter saw Laura lying on the bench and attempted CPR. She died a week later from a hypoxic brain injury, the result of losing oxygen after going into cardiac arrest.

 

Cincinnati Teen Dies in Car in High School Parking Lot After Calling 911
A similar story of 911 failure happened to a 16-year-old boy in his high school parking lot this past April in Cincinnati. Kyle Plush was reaching into the back of his parents’ minivan for tennis equipment when the third row of seats flipped over and trapped him. The seats were pressing on his chest and while laboring to breathe, was able to use the Siri feature on his iPhone to call 911.

His first call to 911 disconnects. The dispatcher calls him back but reaches his voicemail. He then is able to call again and asks the dispatcher to tell his mom that he loves her. He also tells the dispatcher that he is in the Seven Hills school parking lot trapped in his car, giving her the make and model of the minivan. While having this call, the police were already right there in the parking lot. Numerous reports have stated that the dispatcher told police she thought the call might be a prank, leaving out the details of the car. Police claim they searched the lot for a car with a kid trapped inside, but going off of minimal details given to them by the dispatcher, they were unable to locate Kyle.

His parents, however, were able to track his cell phone’s location to his school’s parking lot by using a cell phone finder app called Find my iPhone. They called police with this information after a member of the tennis staff called to tell them their son had failed to show up to his tennis practice. After several hours and multiple calls for help, Cincinnati police finally located Kyle, but he had already died in the car.


How 911 Works
Fifty years ago, in the days of landlines with dials (rotary phones), 911 call centers were equipped with technology that allowed them to locate a caller within seconds. Now, in the era of smartphones, this technology is significantly outdated, making calling 911 a lot less safe for those calling for urgent help.

Today, Chicago 911 call centers receive 4.5 million calls a year, 75% of which come from a cell phone. In Chicago and everywhere else across the country, the process of calling 911 goes like this:

  • Caller dials 911.
  • Call is sent to something called a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), a call center.
  • The 911 dispatcher who answers is typically someone who has specialized training in criminal emergencies (kidnappings, break-ins, etc).
  • They will ask your emergency and your location.
  • If the call is an emergency that isn’t criminal in nature, it might be transferred to another PSAP that handles calls for medical assistance or fires and can dispatch an ambulance or the fire squad.
  • Every single person you speak to when you call 911 will ask your location.
  • While on the call, dispatchers can use Enhanced 911 (or E911) to find your location, but only if you call from a landline.
  • If calling from a cell phone, dispatchers send out a signal to the cell phone networks and try to get a hit from cell phone signal towers that give a rough idea of where the caller is located. This may take too long or not work at all.

As we know from the stories of Laura Levis and Kyle Plush, these towers are not accurate. Experts say the current accuracy rate for 911 cell phone calls is only 40%.

“911’s Deadly Flaw,” a 2015 story by USA Today, found that 63% of cell-phone originated 911 calls in California didn’t share the caller’s location. That amounts to 12.4 MILLION untraceable victims in just one state. Since the early 2000s, cell phones have been a part of main stream culture. They are not new technology, so why hasn’t our federal government stepped up to ensure better E911 services for cell phones?

There are ongoing efforts to improve 911 tracking accuracy, but unfortunately 100% traceability is nowhere in the near future, if it ever happens at all. The FCC has reported that they are working with the 4 largest cell phone providers to increase the percentage of 911 calls that give accurate location data. The goal is to have 80% of all cell phone calls be traceable by 2021. Until then, experts say there’s likely very little chance that improvement will be made, given the low level of accuracy we have right now.

 

Tips for Increasing 911’s Location Accuracy
It is alarming to hear that in case of a emergency, the one place you’re supposed to be able to call for help may not be able to actually find you. With all the technology we have at our fingertips now, we can only hope that 911 call centers will be given the equipment they need to save lives, the very service they were created to provide. According Our research revealed a few things you can do to increase your chances of being located if you should ever have to call 911.

  • Sign up for Smart911
    • This is a free online service that allows you to enter your address, family members and pets who reside in your home, and any medical conditions that emergency personnel may need to know.
    • The City of Chicago announced in September that they would begin using Smart911 to help better respond to emergency callers.
    • According to the site, it is “free, private, and secure.”
  • If you have a smartphone, activate tracking capabilities. These are typically referred to as a Find my Phone feature.
    • This is available on iPhones, Androids, and Windows smartphones.
    • Feature allows your phone to be located.
    • It is smart to share this information and details on how to log into your account to access the feature with family members or a loved one, especially if they are the one calling 911 for you.

 

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