Monday, February 22, 2016

Important to know location

On the receiving end, every 911 call here in Lincoln begins like this:

"911, where is your emergency?"

Notice that the first question isn't what is your emergency, but rather where. Location is critical, and believe it or not, it has become more difficult recently, rather than easier. This article by Paul Hammel in the Omaha World Herald provides a detailed description of the problem, but in a nutshell, the demise of the landline and the proliferation of cell phones is the cause.

The technology of 911 is now approaching age 50, and was developed over the decades to function with copper wire telephone switching systems, in order to identify the subscriber and the subscriber's address. The location was fixed: you could pretty much count on the Princess phone being in the same place to which the bill was mailed every month. Today, however, over 70% of the inbound 911 calls come from cell phones, which are not as easy to locate as you might think.

Sure, you can navigate to the nearest frozen yogurt with Google Maps, watch your daughter on Find my Friends, and vector in for the meet-up with Glympse. You would think it would be a simple matter to pass location information along with a 911 call, but it's not the case. Only about 55% of the wireless 911 calls in Lincoln come with what is known as Phase II location information, which locates the phone within a few dozen meters of its presumed location.

Your smartphone gets operating system updates a few times every year, replaced every couple of years, and the carrier is constantly expanding coverage and capabilities. Your 911 system, however, was designed in a different era, and is composed of an immense, expensive network of hardware and software that is not easily upgraded.

It will change, as circuit-switched 911 systems become packet switched NexGen 911 systems, but the change won't be nearly as rapid as the world of consumer electronics, where massive profits drive innovation. So for the time being and into the mid-term future, you best know where you are when the chips are down, so you can pass the most precise information along to the 911 operator. The best information still comes from the caller, not his or her device.


pejorg2000 said...

The location system for landline phones has not been infallible. Several years ago I called 911 regarding a medical emergency, and the dispatcher referred to an address we hadn't lived at for about a decade; somehow when we moved and took our phone number with us, that location didn't get updated everywhere it needed to. Thankfully, by the time we had a small fire last fall the problem had been corrected.

Anonymous said...

Problem is, no one knows where the hell they are anymore without looking at their phone. The art of looking at an address or a street sign has been totally lost because of GPS and phone mapping systems.

Tom Casady said...


I fear you may be correct, at least for a growing percentage of the population. I'm not sure anyone is left who can fold up the free map from the DX Station before the gas jockey finishes filling the tank with ethyl and checking the oil.

Anonymous said...

What still amazes me is the people who have lived here all their lives and still don't know compass directions in this city. Geeesh.

Steve said...

It would help if not only homes, but commercial buildings had clearly posted addresses, which I think is required by law (could be wrong). Perhaps that could be part of an inspection process by LFR or building codes personnel. Lincoln is much better than some places, but there are still some intersections where finding a street sign is not the easiest thing to do (or in some cases figuring out which name goes with which street when the sign angles do not match the street angles). I wonder how many dispatchers know where the intersection of 36th St. and 37th St. is located. One thing I always made a point of with my driver's ed students was telling them what mile markers were on the highways and why it was important to know where you were at any given time.

Tom Casady said...


As with Pioneers Blvd. & Highway 2, there are two intersections of 36th and 37th streets, more than a mile apart!

Anonymous said...

I recently went to the NW part of the HiLands (sic?) area to purchase an item from Craig's list. I had not been in the area for several years. The streets out there looked like what you would get after picking up a forkful of spaghetti.
Gun Nut

Anonymous said...

This post made me want to watch S3E1 of The Wire, where Major Colvin asks "Where are you?" and explains why situational awareness is essential and can even save an officer's life.