Hank Investigates: Wireless 911

BOSTON (WHDH) - With smart phones and GPS – it seems pretty easy for someone to figure out exactly where we are at any moment.

Uber can do it. And so can Google Maps. So why can’t 9-1-1 do it? 7’s Hank Philippi Ryan looks more closely at the troubling Missed Signals.

One minute Justin Bell was night fishing, alone on a sandbar in Nantucket’s Polpis Harbor, and then, with one wrong step…

He was swept away in the dark cold water.  Justin struggled to stay afloat and managed to grab a mooring ball. He used his cell phone in a waterproof case to call 911.

Justin, 911 call: “I got washed away from the beach. I’m floating in Polpis harbor. I need help.”

911 Dispatcher: “Okay, sir, we’re going to send someone your way.

Emergency crews searched, frantically, but couldn’t locate Justin.  Twenty minutes went by…

Justin: “Hurry!”

Dispatcher: “They’re coming sir.”

Soon Justin sounded like he knew his time was running out.

Justin: “HELP!”

When you call 911 you expect rescuers to know where you are. But Justin had called from a cell phone.

And there’s the frightening reality in Massachusetts and across the country.

Hank: “If a 911 caller doesn’t know where they are, 911 may not know either?”

Blair Sutherland, Director of Telecommunications, Massachusetts State Police: “That’s right. Call takers are worried about this, and… government is worried about this.”

When you use a land line the dispatchers screen can instantly show your exact location, but if you call from your cell phone, the best dispatchers can get is your latitude and longitude. Sometimes they just see the address of the cell phone tower your call hit, sometimes nothing at all.

Rick Collins, 911 Dispatcher Supervisor, Massachusetts State Police: “In the movies, it comes in like they’re in this exact spot it doesn’t work like that here.”

Hank: “Or anywhere?”

Collins: “Or anywhere.”

Though the latest social media and GPS car service apps can instantly find you, the current US 911 system doesn’t use the same technology.

Watch this call come into a state police dispatcher:

“State Police 911…”

His screen displays the 911 call and a location.

State Police Dispatcher: “Zero Worcester road.”

But that’s wrong.  With state police approval, we’d made that test call. And we were not at 0 Worcester Road, we were 1.2 miles away from there at 497 Worcester Road.

Hank: “So bottom line do you know where she is?”

Dispatcher: “No. She could be in the pond across the street, she could be inside the subway, she could be inside the bathroom, she could be inside an apartment on the eighth floor.”

Exactly as challenging to find as Justin in the harbor.

After thirty-four minutes of searching, rescuers used red and blue lights and flashlights to help find him.

Rescuer: “I got him!”

But now, looking out over that deep water, he knows it was a close call.

Justin Bell: “The 911 operators do the best to find where you are, but the technology is not there. I was lucky, I was definitely lucky.”

If you call 911 from a cell phone, instantly give the dispatcher your address and any landmarks that could help rescuers find you.  The Feds have ordered phone companies nationwide to improve wireless 911 information–but that will take years.

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