What to know before calling 911 on a cell phone

How to make a 911 phone call from your cell phone. (WDTN Photo)
How to make a 911 phone call from your cell phone. (WDTN Photo)

SHELBY COUNTY, Ohio (WDTN) – A three-toned cry for help made from the trunk of a car.

“We were numb,” says Phil Eilerman. “We were in shock.”

Victoria Eilerman’s cell phone call got to 911 dispatchers, but held captive in the trunk, the 84-year old didn’t know where she was and dispatchers didn’t either.

“At that time I thought I was crazy,” Phil says. “Why couldn’t you locate her?”

Seven years have passed since the abduction and killing of Phil’s mother Victoria.

They’ve included his trip to the Ohio Statehouse to push for better location accuracy on mobile phone 911 calls.

But, the problem persists and dispatchers say it could happen again today.

Nearly 1,000 911 calls a day come in to the Montgomery County Regional Dispatch Center.

Of those, 80 percent are from cell phones.

2 NEWS discovered 40 percent of the time they don’t know where those cell phone calls are coming from.

“It’s only when everything goes almost perfect with the carrier that we’re able to get some kind of estimated location,” says Captain Matt Haines with the Montgomery County Regional Dispatch Center.

That’s why when you call 911 a dispatcher’s first question is no longer what’s your emergency, but where’s your emergency.

“The first thing our call takes is going to ask is what’s the address of your emergency,” Haines says. “They’re going to verify that to make sure it’s right because people in crisis may give the wrong address or often times are difficult to understand.”

So, why don’t 911 dispatchers know where you’re calling from on a mobile phone?

“I don’t know that anybody’s to blame or if there’s just one source,” Haines says.

To get to the bottom of why it’s so difficult to locate a 911 caller on a mobile phone you have to look at how cell phone use has changed over the years.

In the past, most 911 calls from inside buildings were made using land lines, so the standards for cell phone 911 calls dealt more with pinpointing outside locations, but as more people have ditched their land lines for cell phones, the rules haven’t kept pace.

Right now, cell phone carriers are not held to a standard on the accuracy of 911 calls from inside buildings.

When it comes to calls made outside, 90 percent of them are supposed to be pinpointed within 300 meters. That’s the length of about three football fields.

Put that three football field radius inside a city block and it can be tough for first responders to find you.

2 NEWS contacted the Federal Communications Commission.

It has proposed rules to force cell phone carriers to provide more accurate locations on inside 911 calls, but we’ve learned it could be months before they’re finalized.

Even then, cell phone carriers would be given two to five years to comply. They’ve told the FCC that’s still not enough time.

They say the problem is the technology isn’t there to meet the stricter standards. Other stakeholders argue it is.

Either way, it will take time to implement.

“I don’t know if it’ll ever be all because there will always be technology gaps, but I think in the not too distant future that’s what the American public is going to demand,” Haines says.

As for the Eilerman family, they pray no one else will have to go through what they did.

“With the 911 system you sure hope we’d be able to locate anybody,” Phil says.

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