From the Chief
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911 and Cell Phones
Imagine yourself driving on a "back country road" late at night. The houses look like old farm style houses. They are spread fairly far apart. Every once in a while you see a mailbox that is actually still standing and has not yet been the victim of "mailbox baseball". Your attention is drawn to an orange glow off to your left, over a hill. As you get closer, you realize that a house is on fire! You grab your cell phone and dial 9-1-1. The call is answered at a Communications Center. You explain that you are in front of a house that is on fire. The call taker asks you where the house is. You know the name of the road that you are on, but have no idea of an address. You do know that you just went by an intersection and you give the call taker the name of the road and the intersecting street. The call taker is not familiar with either of the streets and asks you what city you are in. You tell the call taker the name of the city that you think you are in and the call taker transfers your call to that city. You explain the situation to that call taker who promptly advises you that is not in their jurisdiction. You stay on the line while the call taker calls the appropriate jurisdiction and gives them the pertinent information. The call taker then tells you that the Fire Department has been dispatched and should be on the way. The Fire Department arrives and extinguishes the fire, the house is a complete loss. Luckily, no one was home and no one was injured.
As you are driving the rest of your way home, you wonder though, why it took so long for this all to happen. Isn't 9-1-1 designed to give the call taker the address and everything else they need to know? Designed to? Yes. Does it always? No.
First, let's get a very basic understanding of how 9-1-1 works. When you dial 9-1-1 the call is routed by telephone line to Minneapolis, Minnesota where a computer then re-routes the call to the correct communications center. The correct communications center is determined by data entry completed by Ameritech. Each landline telephone installed is assigned to the correct communications center based on a Master Street Address Guide that shows each agency's jurisdiction. Enhanced 9-1-1 systems, which most Miami Valley agencies now have, show to whom the telephone is listed, their address and the phone number. Even if you have an ID block for caller ID purposes, the information is still supplied to the 9-1-1 system. So, calls from regular landline telephones are routed to the correct communications center this way.
Unfortunately, cellular technology has not yet been refined enough to be able to do this. When you dial 9-1-1 from your cell phone, you first access a tower for your cellular signal. The call is then routed to Minneapolis, Minnesota and back to a communications center. Since your cell phone itself has not been assigned a communications center, the computer in Minneapolis has to determine a communications center somehow. The current way of routing this call is to send it to the communications center in which the tower that you accessed for your cellular signal is located. For example, locally a tower was built south of Bellbrook, inside Warren County. This tower is accessed by a good number of cellular customers in and around Bellbrook. Cellular calls to 9-1-1 from the Bellbrook area are likely to access this tower. These calls are routed to the Warren County Communications Center in Lebanon, Ohio. With jurisdictional lines difficult for anyone to determine, it's easy to see how a call can be mis-routed by an agency at least 15 miles away.
Remember too, that this is all mechanical, technological and pre-determined until the call is answered at a Communications Center. Unlike landline phones, cellular calls ring into an Enhanced 9-1-1 system showing all information as "Anonymous". It does not show where the call is coming from, who owns the phone or a phone number. Cellular calls especially are subject to error. Technological advances sometimes set us back.
NEVER be hesitant to call 9-1-1 in the case of an emergency. Just try to stay as calm as possible, speak clearly and slowly. If the cell phone connection has a lot of static, try moving around a little bit; sometimes that is all you need. Yelling does not help. Try to give the call taker as much information as possible about where you are and where the emergency is. Be patient! When the call taker asks you for a call back or contact number, please be willing to give your cell phone number. If an agency is dispatched and has trouble locating the emergency, they may need to call you back and get a better idea of the location. If you do not know the area very well, describe what is around you. If you tell the call taker that you just went through a very sharp curve, they may know exactly where you are talking about. Do not get frustrated with what seems to you "silly" questions. The call taker is asking them for a reason.
Technology and cell phones are great, but for now we must deal with their limitations. Research and work are being done to better identify cellular caller locations, but until then, we must work with what we have.
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