911 flaw might prevent emergency crews from finding you
Our cell phones make it easy for us to find and be found. Rideshare drivers, social media, and even the pizza delivery guy can all pinpoint our exact location. So you might be surprised to learn 911 dispatchers can't.
"We can take anywhere from 350-500 calls in an average 24-hour period," said Brian Bregenzer, communications commander for Austin-Travis County EMS. "It's really anyone's guess what's going to happen when the phone rings."
But there's no guessing when it comes to the first question he asks when he takes a call: "What's the address of the emergency? That's the #1 most important thing," said Bregenzer.
Because even more important than what your emergency is, is where.
"If we don't know where you are, then we can't get help to you," said Bregenzer.
He believes more than 90 percent of 911 calls now come from cell phones, and many callers think dispatchers can find them using GPS.
"It is a misconception," Bregenzer said. "We don't always get information that will pinpoint your exact location."
That's because we give apps on our phones permission to track our exact GPS location. Emergency dispatch has to rely on information from cell towers and triangulation. The longer you stay on a call, the better that information should be. So we tested phones from the four major carriers to see just how accurately they could pinpoint our location
First up – Verizon. That call mapped us right to the 911 call center on Old Manor Road. The next three calls weren't as successful.
The AT&T phone gave us a block range between 2100 and 5299 Manor Road, not an exact address or location.
"It's not quite as close as the last call we looked at," said Bregenzer.
T-Mobile came up with a similar location. And the Sprint phone also couldn't pinpoint an exact spot.
"We're right here at 5010 Old Manor Road and we're hitting on Manor Road," said Bregenzer.
That's a quarter mile away, half a mile if an ambulance had to drive there.
"Without an address or a location to go to, we can only provide help over the phone for so long," said Bregenzer.
Most callers do know either an address or an intersection. Bregenzer said where things can get tricky are places like the lake or the greenbelt.
"If you're on, say, Lake Travis, it's 65 miles long," he said. "Pay attention to where you started from, look for specific landmarks that you can remember along the way so that if you do have an emergency you can give that information to us when you call 911."
And even when you're calling from home, make sure everyone in the house knows the address, including children. Because if they need to call for help, they'll need to answer the most important question of all: what's the address of your emergency?
Bregenzer told us normally there's no one carrier that always provides better information than the others, and the information can be obstructed by factors like weather. He said calls where they have to search for people are few and far between and they always do end up finding people in an emergency.