Outdated technology hindering 911 dispatchers in providing emergency services

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.-- We teach our kids to call 911 when they are in danger or need help, but will the police be able to find you if you need the police or an ambulance? What if that call for help was delayed because they can't locate you? You might be surprised to find out that sometimes an Uber driver can find you quicker than first responders.

"911 technology runs on a network that is almost 50 years old," said Karen Chadwick, communications manager for Grand Rapids Central Dispatch. "The network parts aren't 50 years old, but the network is 50 years old."

Calls made from landlines are most reliable; the address connected with the number comes up instantly. Nowadays, 80 percent of calls made to 911 come from mobile phones, which comes with its own set of problems.

"The technology we use to locate cell phones is about 12 years old," said Chadwick. "We started being able to locate cell phone callers in about 2004 or 2005, so we are 11 or 12 years old and technology evolves very quickly."

Cell phone calls to 911 are tracked using cell towers. When a call is made, dispatchers can locate you based on the nearest towers. When it's triangulated between two or more cell towers, they can usually pinpoint your location.

"It hits on a sector that is assigned to Grand Rapids for instance, then that call will come here," said Chadwick. "The sector information is considered phase one, so what we get immediately is the address of the tower and the sector, so it is pointing southwest or east or whatever. It kind of narrows it down into a pie shape, but doesn't really tell you where the person is."

But it doesn't always work, so Fox 17 put it to the test. We called 911 from inside of the Grand Rapids Police Department at One Monroe Center. The first time, our location was tracked about two blocks away at Veteran's Park.

"It's a little off," said Chadwick. "It's putting you like two blocks north. It says you are at Veteran's Park."

The second time we called, it took about a minute and 45 seconds before accurately finding our location.

FOX 17 asked Chadwick how big of a deal this would be in case of a serious medical emergency.

"It is going to take us a while to find you," said Chadwick. "It's very close, but it's not exact. It is 12-year-old technology, but it's the best we have so we work with."

Factors such as being inside a car, inside or between two buildings, bad weather, or calling from an older cell phone can hinder tracking.

"We are always going to ask you where you are," said Chadwick. "We are not going to rely on the technology. The technology is like a confirmation of what we're told by the person."

You might be shocked to find that services like Uber are often more accurate.

FOX 17 called an Uber from outside of the Grand Rapids Police Department, and Uber located our location the first time.

"That's what we want, and that's what all these efforts will get us to that point," said Chadwick.

Chadwick says there's hope for change. State and federal agencies are working on better tracking technology, but there is a catch: It can't be the same public cell networks that Uber uses. "Instead of a commercial network, we're insisting on a public safety grade network,and that's what we're building out currently in the state of Michigan, county by county."

By the end of 2018, Michigan hopes to have a next generation 911 system. You will be able to call, text or video chat with 911. Most important, location data will be embedded in each call for service.

"We can't have a 911 system that doesn't work," said Chadwick. "It pretty much has to work all the time, and if it doesn't, it is a really big deal."

911 dispatchers agree that there are some issues with the current system just because it is 12 years old. Luckily, there haven't been any real issues with locating someone here in Grand Rapids, but that's not the case in other parts of the country.

Dispatchers are big advocates for having the FCC improve location accuracy, and Michigan is taking steps towards upgrading our 911 call system. Their hope is that they will eliminate the chances of something bad happening because police or ambulance services can't find you.

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