How cellphones are changing 911

Kate Bergstrom was home alone with her toddler when the allergic reaction began.

Her throat started to swell. It became difficult to breathe. There was no one else to help her.


As precious seconds ticked by, the Baltimore County woman reached for her cellphone and tapped 911.

But when the call connected, she got a dispatcher in Baltimore City — the wrong jurisdiction.


It's a problem that has grown increasingly common in Maryland and across the country: As more people rely on cellphones to communicate with the wider world, more emergency calls are going to dispatch centers in other towns, counties, even states.

When a caller dials 911 on a landline, the telephone grid routes the call to the correct dispatch center, and the 911 system tells the dispatcher the caller's address, which helps emergency responders get to the scene.

But a cellphone tries to connect to the nearest cell tower, which might or might not be in the caller's jurisdiction. And cellphone technology does not always provide a caller's precise location to a 911 system.

Dispatchers who are able to figure out that a caller is in another jurisdiction can forward the call to the right center.

But in an emergency, a delay can be fatal.

A newspaper delivery woman who drove into a pond in suburban Atlanta early one dark morning in December 2014 had time to dial 911. But the call went to another county, and dispatchers were unable to determine the woman's location.

The car sank. The woman was trapped and later died.

In an emergency, former Federal Communications Commission official Jamie Barnett said, minutes "can literally be a lifetime for somebody."


Barnett, former chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, led Find Me 911, a coalition that lobbied to improve the accuracy of 911 location information.

"Is the person going to remain conscious?" asked Barnett, a retired Navy admiral. "Is the cellphone going to drop the signal?

"There are any number of things that can go wrong."

The problem is as old as cellphones. But as Americans abandon their landlines, it's growing.

In 2003, 96 percent of U.S. households had landlines. A decade later, the proportion had fallen to 53 percent. Today, more than 70 percent of 911 calls nationwide are made on cellphones.

Now federal and state officials are trying to catch up.


New federal rules require the wireless industry to improve the technology for locating cellphones used to dial 911. A federal work group convened by the FCC is studying how to prevent emergency cellphone calls from being misrouted. Technical advances such as 911 texting are becoming more accessible.

There is also a federal push for dispatch centers to move toward an Internet-based system called Next Generation 911. The system would not only help prevent misrouting and improve location accuracy, but would eventually also let callers send videos and other multimedia messages to dispatchers.

In Maryland, as in other states, officials are still in the planning stages for Next Generation 911. The state Emergency Number Systems Board has been funding projects intended to help local call centers make the transition to the new system. Legislation introduced in the General Assembly this year would allow the state to use money from its 911 Trust Fund to help plan for it.

The FCC has estimated that the transition to Next Generation 911 nationwide could cost up to $2.68 billion over a decade. State officials say they're still trying to estimate the cost of the move in Maryland.

Technology exists to track cellphones. But it's not yet precise enough to always pinpoint exactly where a person is located.

"What is wrong and where — those are the two key things that we have to know," said Ross Coates, public safety manager for Harford County.


Of the 210 cellphone calls the Harford center receives daily, about eight come from another jurisdiction — mostly Baltimore and Cecil counties, but also Baltimore City, and occasionally Pennsylvania.

Harford County dispatchers work out of the Department of Emergency Services building in Forest Hill. The dispatch center has high ceilings and large windows. Each dispatcher has five computer screens at his or her station.

When a cellphone call comes in, the center receives the GPS coordinates.

But those coordinates are not always exact. Current federal law requires wireless carriers to provide location accuracy to within 50 to 300 meters, depending upon the type of technology used.

Coates said it isn't enough.

"If you're on the edge of the cornfield or in the middle of the cornfield, chances are we can find you," he said. "But when you're in a heavily wooded area or you're in a downtown metropolitan area, that can still add to some complications of locating our callers."


Dispatchers have tested accuracy with their own phones. Some have called from inside the center, Coates said, to see their screens showing that they are located up the road.

If a call comes in from another county, dispatchers can pull up a screen with buttons that allow them to transfer the call. In Harford, they've sent calls to Lancaster and York counties in Pennsylvania.

Last year, more than 1,300 calls to Baltimore's 911 line had to be redirected to Baltimore County, according to city fire officials. Another 58 were sent to Anne Arundel County.

Numbers or estimates of redirected calls statewide were not available.

Officials say call takers are trained to send a misdirected call to the correct jurisdiction quickly, and to stay on the line during the transfer.

"Most of the centers are pretty good at identifying where the person is," said Scott Roper, executive director of the Maryland Emergency Number Systems Board.


He said call centers are streamlined, so that no matter what center a person reaches in Maryland, "you're going to get the same over-the-phone medical help," he said.

For callers, getting the wrong jurisdiction can still be disturbing.

Bergstrom, who lives in the Anneslie neighborhood of Towson, was suffering an allergic reaction to ibuprofen. As she remembers it, it took the Baltimore City dispatcher about a minute to figure out where she was and to redirect her call.

"It's very concerning that my cellphone doesn't go correctly to 911," Bergstrom said. "I just want to be sent directly to the right people."

Marylanders who live near county lines say the problem of misdirected 911 calls is common.

In Dundalk's Harbor View community — another Baltimore County neighborhood along the city line — 911 calls have been answered by the city "for as long as I can remember," Georgia Bartrum said.


"Every time I call 911, I get Baltimore City," she said. "Each time I tell them to transfer me to Baltimore County." In Anne Arundel, police Lt. John McAndrew said, it happens most often in Brooklyn Park, which borders Baltimore. The county receives calls from boaters on local rivers that may fall under the jurisdiction of Baltimore County or the Coast Guard.

Woody Bowen, president of the Olde Brooklyn Park Improvement Association, said he regularly fields complaints from neighbors whose 911 calls went to Baltimore instead of Anne Arundel.

"It's one of my main points at all of my association meetings: If you call 911, explain to them you're in Anne Arundel County," he said.

In one highly publicized case, 31-year-old Shanell Anderson of Sandy Springs, Ga., was trapped in her vehicle, which was sinking into a pond, in Cherokee County at 4 a.m. when she called 911. The call was routed to a dispatcher in neighboring Alpharetta.

"We could not plot where her location was," said George Gordon, spokesman for the Alpharetta Department of Public Safety.

Rescuers found Anderson more than 20 minutes after her call. She died at a hospital days later.


In Maryland, cellphones were used in about 69 percent of the more than 4.7 million emergency calls made in 2014, according to the Emergency Number Systems Board.

The FCC is pushing the wireless industry to increase location accuracy for mobile emergency calls.

In 1996, when the FCC first adopted rules for wireless 911 calls, it required carriers to determine the location of the caller. But back then, most 911 calls originated outdoors, from motorists on the road. The technology wasn't ideal for determining the location of a caller inside a building — where a growing number of calls now originate.

New rules adopted in 2015 require carriers to be able to provide a caller's location within 50 meters for 80 percent of all wireless 911 calls by 2021.

They also require development of technology that will determine how high up a caller is in a multistory building.

Barnett, of the Find Me 911 coalition, said the group was disappointed in the final rules. The coalition, which included 911 operators, first responders and professional organizations, received funding from True Position, a company that develops location-finding technologies.


Barnett said earlier proposals were stronger and had shorter timelines.

The wireless industry — which helped develop the rules the FCC ultimately adopted — contended that it was impossible to meet the previously proposed benchmarks and timetable.

The new rules will "assure widespread improvements for first responders," Meredith Attwell Baker, president and CEO of cellphone industry group CTIA-The Wireless Association, said when the rules were adopted in January 2015.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has described the new regulations as "a beginning, not an end."

"We should not be satisfied with a situation where Uber can consistently find a user's house via an app, but the EMT's location fix is within half a football field 80 percent of the time," Wheeler said in a statement last year.

One component of Next Generation 911 is the ability to text 911 — a technology officials say will help people with hearing disabilities, and those in situations where calling 911 would endanger the caller.


"Many people just assume that you would be able to communicate just as you would with your friends," with texts, pictures and videos, said Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association. "You would think you have that ability with 911, but you don't. We're stuck in last-century technology."

Frederick County launched a pilot program in 2013 to let people text 911. It remains the only Maryland 911 system that can receive texts, but the state is beginning a procurement process to spread the technology statewide, said Roper, of Maryland Emergency Number Systems Board.

Smartphone apps often seem more accurate at locating phones and giving driving directions.

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That's because the communication system between carriers and 911 dispatch centers doesn't yet use the same technologies as those apps, said Matthew Gerst, director of regulatory affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association.

Often the apps determine a phone's location by seeing how the phone is searching for nearby wireless hot spots. The technology is particularly useful technology in urban areas, where tall buildings can block satellite signals, making GPS less accurate, Gerst said.

For Bergstrom, everything turned out OK. Paramedics arrived and she was treated for her allergic reaction.


But she wonders what would have happened if she hadn't been able to speak to the dispatcher, or if her call had been disconnected.

If she ever needs to call 911 again, she said, "the first thing I'm going to say is, 'I'm in Baltimore County.'"