Cellphone Trouble

Josh McFadden

Josh McFadden


Josh McFadden

With GPS technology, you can use your smartphone and find a destination with ease. So, people might think when they call an emergency number, the person on the other end of the line will automatically know where they are.

Not always.

When people call from a cellphone, it’s not automatic that you will know exactly where they are. With a landline, the caller’s location will pop up on your screen, though you will, of course, still verify the address.

It’s a good thing the first question the Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS®), Fire Priority Dispatch System (FPDS®), and Police Priority Dispatch System (FPDS®) instruct emergency dispatchers to ask is, “What is the address of your emergency?”

Cellphones use cell towers to determine the caller’s location. The problem is, the caller’s phone may ping a tower miles away, possibly in an area your center doesn’t serve. This wastes precious time, which could be the difference between life and death. In fact, the FCC estimates that a one-minute improvement in response time to cellphone callers could save more than 10,000 lives per year.1

In December 2016, Shanell Anderson, of Sandy Springs, Georgia, USA, lost control of her SUV during the early morning hours and landed in a pond in Cherokee County, Georgia. Anderson called 911 from her cellphone, reporting her situation and telling the emergency dispatcher at Alpharetta Department of Public Safety that her vehicle was sinking. Anderson described her location as best she could, but the emergency dispatcher told her that her location wasn’t coming up on the system. Anderson continued giving her location, but eventually, the call was disconnected.

The team at Alpharetta worked feverishly to determine the location, and it sent firefighters to various nearby locations with water. By the time crews arrived on the scene 20 minutes later, Anderson’s car was 8 feet underwater. She was alive but was in a coma and died 1 ½ weeks later.

Turns out Anderson’s cellphone call was routed through the nearest cell tower to another county; Alpharetta didn’t cover the area where Anderson was sinking, which is why the emergency dispatcher couldn’t find it on her maps.2

This is hardly an isolated case. A four-part story in USA Today lays out several alarming statistics in the U.S. alone regarding cellphone calls to emergency numbers3:

  • In California, more than half of cellphone calls didn't transmit location to 911 from 2011 to 2013. In 2016, about 12.4 million of California's cellphone calls to 911 didn't share location.
  • In Texas, from 2010 through 2013, more than 65 percent of cellphone calls in a sample of calls from major cities reached 911 without an instant position on location.
  • In 2014, Fairfax County, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., the report stated that only 25 percent of cellphone calls included precise location data, while Loudoun County officials said 29 percent of mobile calls included the exact location over the last six months of that year.
In March 2017, AT&T cellphone users in 14 states were unable to call 911 for several hours. AT&T apologized for the interruption but offered no explanation as to what caused the problem.4

Cutting out

Everyone has experienced the annoyance of his or her cellphone call dropping or experiencing poor reception. While this can frustrate people during routine calls, when emergencies are in progress, emergency dispatchers and callers depend on a clear connection in order to relay vital information and instructions.

Daniel Alexander is a communications officer at Neshoba County E-911 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, USA. He said poor quality with cellphone calls is a common problem at his center.

“Signal quality and dropped calls pose a significant obstacle to calltakers attempting to obtain information during interrogation,” he said. “Also, the quality of the voice audio tends to be lower on cellular devices, especially when someone is using a hands-free or Bluetooth-style device in conjunction with a cellular device. In my experience, even people who have a landline option readily available tend to use a cellular device to make an emergency call.”

Emergency calls from cellphones are subject to the same challenges cellphone users have with any call: drops, outages, poor service, and other similar issues. Emergency dispatchers all over the globe deal with these conditions constantly.

Location solutions

When cellphone callers aren’t sure where they are, there are some simple things emergency dispatchers can do to pinpoint the location. If the caller can’t provide an exact address or nearby intersections, the emergency dispatcher should ask for landmarks or other distinguishing features of the area: the name of a lake or river or the name of a shopping center, school, park, or well-known business.

Kassandra Lee, emergency medical dispatcher for Action Ambulance in Wilmington, Massachusetts, USA, and a Fire Alarm Operator (FAO) for Seabrook, New Hampshire, Fire Department, said she advises callers to be observant and aware of their surroundings.

“As far as obtaining location from those who are unfamiliar with their surroundings, I often ask them what they can see,” she said. “Can they see an easily identified building like a McDonalds, a post office, etc.? If they are on a residential street, I have them look around them. Do they see a mailbox—what number or name is on it? Do they see a home? What color is it? Are there any unique features to it? Often, I can figure out a pretty accurate location from these things.”

There are also cellphone apps designed to automatically show the emergency dispatcher the caller’s exact address from the moment the call comes in. Google has an app, appropriately named Phone, compatible with all Android devices. The Australian government has developed an app called Emergency+ that uses GPS technology to help callers provide 000 emergency dispatchers important location details. This free app is available for download on Google Play and at the Apple Store.

Also in Australia, St. John Ambulance officials have developed the St. John First Responder App. When someone calls 000 from his or her phone using this app, it sends the caller’s GPS coordinates directly to an emergency dispatcher, making it easier for an ambulance to arrive on the scene quickly.

SirenGPS, One-Touch-911, and SafeTrek are other popular cellphone apps callers can use to aid emergency dispatchers in determining exact location.

Other problems

Emergency dispatchers also contend with other obstacles when taking calls from cellphones. These phones often pick up other sounds in the area, making it difficult for the emergency dispatchers to hear what the person is saying, particularly if the caller is outside.

“Another issue is audio quality,” said Tracey Halvorson, Supervising Fire Dispatcher, Kern County (California, USA) Fire Dept. “Many cellphones pick up background noises as loudly as the caller's voice. More people use speakerphone with cell calls, which distorts audio quality also. Damaged or poor quality phones are common.”

Karina Skegg, a Quality Improvement and consumer Safety Consultant with Ambulance Tasmania in Hobart, Australia, has similar sentiments about sound quality barriers. She also said cellphones account for other troubling obstacles.

“The challenges are with wind noise, background sounds (especially in a pub or nightclub), passing the phone around to others, not knowing how to put it on hands-free,” she said. “No one knows anyone’s phone number anymore.”

In addition to the widely understood problems with location detection, Eileen Selby, an Admin Specialist/EMD-Q® with Dare County Sheriff’s Office in Manteo, North Carolina, USA, said many cellphone callers simply don’t understand what their phones are capable of.

“Another challenge with cellphones is people not realizing that even phones without service can still dial 911,” she said. “I also believe most people think the capabilities within the 911 center are what they see on crime shows on TV. People can stop in the middle of the road and have a pizza delivered to their location, but when they call 911, we can't locate them, and trying to explain the different technologies can be frustrating.”

Other emergency dispatchers say that many cellphone callers don’t realize that emergency dispatchers can’t call them back, like they can landlines, if they leave the phone. The quality of cellphone batteries is another problem, as some phones run out of power during an emergency phone call, especially if the caller is in a remote area with no power outlets to charge his or her phone.

The benefits

Using cellphones to call for emergency help isn’t all negative. There are some advantages for emergency dispatchers when the person on the other end of line isn’t tied down to a landline.

In March 2012, the Journal of Emergency Medicine published a study titled “Mobile Phone Use for Contacting Emergency Services in Life-threatening Circumstances.”5 The study authors concluded that “the use of mobile phones to alert emergency services in a life-threatening situation is associated with improved mortality rates at the scene in patients with medical problems and a lower likelihood of admission to the emergency department.”6

The study further stated that “137 more lives are saved per 100,000 patients when emergency services are called from a mobile phone in the critical moments after the onset of an acute illness or injury compared to a landline phone.”

Researchers noted that because cellphone use is so prevalent today, it’s much easier to quickly notify emergency responders when help is needed.

Lee said cellphone callers can more easily administer lifesaving help to patients as instructed.

“I have had instances of people calling from a landline being unable to go to the patient in need of CPR or other immediate interventions giving me a cellphone number so I could call them to get them close to give instructions,” she said. “An example would be a multi-floor shelter where the office is on the first or ground floor and the patient is on the fifth floor, and they couldn't see or help the patient from where they ran down to get to a phone, but the patient was unconscious.”

The History

In 1973, Martin Cooper and John F. Mitchell, both of Motorola, demonstrated the world’s first handheld cellular phone. The duo even made a phone call on the 4-pound device.8 it wasn’t much like today’s models, though. One could only talk for 30 minutes before the phone would die, and it took 10 hours to charge.

In 1979, the first cellular network, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, was launched in Japan. Four years later, Motorola made history when it launched the DynaTAC 8000X, the world’s first commercial cellphone. Like Cooper and Mitchell’s phone 10 years earlier, the DynaTAC allowed a person to talk for half an hour. It also stored a grand total of 30 phone numbers. The price tag: a cool $3,995 USD. 9

Things began to shift in the early to mid-1990s when cellphones became more affordable and were designed with the average consumer in mind. Nokia released several models, much smaller and more sophisticated by standards of the day. By the late 1990s, you could even play games on your phone.

Smartphones began to make their appearance in the 21st century, and their popularity grew immensely at the end of that first decade. Today, you can’t go anywhere without seeing people talking, texting, browsing the internet, or playing games on their phones.

While cellphones—smartphones in particular—can make life easier by providing people with instant information and the ability to communicate virtually anywhere, there are drawbacks in the emergency dispatch environment.

Cellphone prevalence

The growth of cellphone use is staggering. It makes one wonder if Cooper and Martin could have possibly imagined 4 ½ decades ago how pervasive these communication tools would be.

According to Pew Research, as of the beginning of 2018, 95 percent of Americans own cellphones; 77 percent own smartphones.10 Worldwide, the website Statista reports that 62.9 percent of everyone on Earth owns a cellphone. The site forecasts that by the end of 2018, 4.77 billion people will own and use mobile phones. Statista also projects that by 2019, there will be 2.7 billion smartphone users.

The Mobile Marketing Association of Asia reports that more people on the planet own cellphones than toothbrushes.11 Sink your teeth into that.

For young people, smartphones are an essential possession. In the U.S., 92 percent of adults 18–34 years old own a smartphone. That number jumps to 94 percent in Canada and is 91 percent in the United Kingdom. In Australia, 95 percent of 18 to 34 year olds own these devices, compared to 70 percent of those age 35 and older.12

These figures continue to rise steeply as cellphones and other mobile devices become an indispensable part of life. Cellphones are so common that one report stated that 50 percent of cellphone users reported they feel uneasy if they leave their devices at home when they go out. The same report said 50 percent of all teens admitted to being addicted to their cellphones.13

Cellphone calls to emergency numbers

With the accelerating growth of cellphone use and popularity of smartphones, traditional home landlines are disappearing.

In 2004, 92.7 percent of all U.S. households had a landline in their place of residence. In this same year, only 5 percent of homes had only a cellphone. Fast forward to 2017, and you see some eye-opening numbers. As of 2017, only 43.8 percent of all U.S. homes had a landline, compared with 52.5 percent that had only cellphones. 14

With landline use plummeting, so, too, have the number of landline calls to emergency numbers when people are reporting medical needs or fires, or when they’re requesting police assistance.

In September 2017, the Federal Communications Commission reported that 70 percent of all U.S. calls to 911 originated from cellphones. 15 This figure may be higher or lower in your center, as factors such as demographics and geographic location vary from place to place. For example, Emergency Dispatcher Eva Grumbir, a Communication Specialist II with Santa Rosa County Emergency Communications in Milton, Florida, USA, estimates up to 80 percent of all the calls she takes come from cellphones.

Cellphones come in handy for callers reporting emergencies when they’re on the go—at restaurants, at the grocery store, driving in their car, or at a public event. But because of the decline in landline use, many callers are using cellphones when they’re at home too.

In summary

It doesn’t appear as though cellphones are going away anytime soon. In fact, at the current rate, one has to wonder if in the coming years emergency dispatchers will get more than a few random landline emergency calls here and there.

It’s vital for emergency dispatchers to prepare for the challenges that come with taking cellphone calls by being patient, persistent, and precise in their instructions and questioning.


1 Serrie J. “911 centers struggle to find callers on cellphones, and results can be deadly.” Fox News U.S. Fox News Network, LLC. 2016; Dec. 28. http://www.foxnews.com/us/2016/12/28/911-centers-struggle-to-find-callers-on-cellphones-and-results-can-be-deadly.html (accessed Jan. 23, 2018).

2 Kelly J, Keefe B. “911’s deadly flaw: Lack of location data.” USA Today. 2018. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/02/22/cellphone-911-lack-location-data/23570499/ (accessed Jan. 24, 2018).

3 See note 2.

4 Chokshi N. “AT&T Cellphone Users Unable to Call 911 in at Least 14 States.” New York Times. New York Times Company. 2017; March 8. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/08/us/att-users-unable-to-call-911.html (accessed Jan. 24, 2018).

5 Wu O, Briggs A, Kemp T, et al. “Mobile Phone Use for Contacting Emergency Services in Life-Threatening Circumstances.” The Journal of Emergency Medicine. Elsevier Inc. 2012; March. http://www.jem-journal.com/article/S0736-4679(11)00788-8/fulltext (accessed Jan. 24, 2018).

6 “Mobile phones proven to save lives in emergencies.” EME Update. Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association. 2012. http://www.amta.org.au/articles/Mobile.phones.proven.to.save.lives.in.emergencies (accessed Jan. 25, 2018).

7 See note 5.

8 Goodwin R. “The History of Mobile Phones from 1973 To 2008: The Handsets That Made It All Happen.” Know Your Mobile. Dennis Publishing. 2017; March 6. http://www.knowyourmobile.com/nokia/nokia-3310/19848/history-mobile-phones-1973-2008-handsets-made-it-all-happen (accessed Jan. 18, 2018).

9 See note 8.

10 “Mobile Fact Sheet.” Pew Research Center. 2017; Jan. 12. http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/mobile/ (accessed Jan. 18, 2018)

11 Turner J. “Are There Really More Mobile Phone Owners Than Toothbrush Owners?” LinkedIn. LinkedIn Corporation. 2016; April 10. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/really-more-mobile-phone-owners-than-toothbrush-jamie-turner/ (accessed Jan. 23, 2018).

12 Poushter J. “Smartphone Ownership and Internet Usage Continues to Climb in Emerging Economies.” Pew Research Center. 2016; Feb. 22. http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/02/22/smartphone-ownership-and-internet-usage-continues-to-climb-in-emerging-economies/ (accessed Jan. 22, 2018).

13 “15 Terrifying Statistics About Cell Phone Addiction.” Daily Infographic. 2017; May 17. http://www.dailyinfographic.com/15-terrifying-statistics-about-cell-phone-addiction (accessed Jan. 24, 2018).

14 Richter F. “Landline Phones Are a Dying Breed.” Statista. 2018; Jan. 8. https://www.statista.com/chart/2072/landline-phones-in-the-united-states/ (accessed Jan. 23, 2018).

15 “911 Wireless Services.” Federal Communications Commission. 2017; Sept. 8. https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/911-wireless-services (accessed Jan. 23, 2018).