Locating 911

by Colin Berkshire

My son was driving a car and we were T-Boned at 40-50 MPH. My wife was injured and needed an ambulance. It took the 911 dispatchers 10 minutes to determine which jurisdiction was responsible and where we were (despite my having the precise names of the cross streets.) My three month old grandson was possibly injured. It was life threatening.

In most jurisdictions, people pay about $20 a year for 911 dispatch services. You see this $1.50 to $2 charge on every phone bill. This adds up to a lot of money…tens of millions of dollars a year in a typical state.

But the sad truth is that this money gets spent on surveillance cameras mounted to traffic lights, for license plate readers on police cars, on paramilitary equipment including armored vehicles, and on donuts.

I suggest you call 911 and make a “test call” to ensure that your phone is working properly. Immediately announce the call as a “verification call” and ask the dispatcher to tell you your current location to confirm that your phone’s GPS is working and communicating properly.

Here is what will happen: A rude and snippy dispatcher will tersely speak with you. You can then offer to call later if the dispatch center is busy. They will snap back at you, but indicate it is not. They then will be unable to tell you even approximately where you are located. That is because they just don’t know.

911 dispatch centers largely use an utterly ineffective way of locating you called “tower triangulation.” This is a fancy way of saying “garbage data in is garbage data out”. This system just doesn’t work. It isn’t even close in most cases.

What is odd is that your smart phone knows precisely where you are…usually within a foot or three. But this information isn’t transmitted to the 911 dispatch center. So they can’t find you on a map when you call. Does that suck, or what?

I cannot understand why these smart phones can’t transmit your coordinates to the dispatch center. Heck, they could simply touch-tone latitude and longitude when the call is answered and in less than two seconds your location would be in their hands…to 10 decimal places of accuracy. (There are faster ways of sending this data, I just use touch-tone as the most immediate and dead simple way of sending it to every 911 center.)

But do you want to know the really funny thing?

If law enforcement wants to track you or know your precise location they can send a special ping to the phone and it will answer back with the location. Yes, this is correct, the FBI can find you but the 911 folks cannot.

I guess that shows what the priorities are.