In this age of cell phones, 80% of calls to 911 come from wireless devices. This has proven a challenge to emergency dispatch services since a cell phone is not associated with a specific location. In a perfect world, 911 dispatch would be able to track your phone, but while your wireless carrier can generally provide a signal of your location for emergency medical services, the science is not exact.
How Does Calling 911 Work? Can They Track Your Phone?
When you call 911, that call is broadcast to your carrier’s nearest cell tower. The signal that the tower sends to 911 gives data that falls under one of two phases. Phase one calls provide the latitude and longitude of the cell tower that received your call, while calls that fall under phase two send the nearest known address relative to your phone.
The effectiveness of either kind of information is entirely dependent on the area. In places of fewer towers and more spotty coverage, like more rural areas, location information is far less precise. If a caller is near a cell tower, phase one calls may be more accurate to the caller’s location while still being off by 15 to 50 feet. Sometimes the signal sent to dispatch will include a “COF” number, which indicates a confidence level of how close the caller might be in proximity to the tower, so emergency services don’t look for a caller blocks away from the actual emergency.
If you do not give your location when you call into Emergency Medical Services, EMS will rely on the wireless location provided by the carrier as a better-than-nothing way to track your phone. However, every carrier varies in the dependability of the offered coordinates, and sometimes a 911 operator has to refresh the system multiple times to get a location. Even then the data may not be precise, and in an emergency, it is important to be precise in order for help to get to you as soon as possible.
Doesn’t Your Phone Have GPS?
Despite most contemporary cell phones being equipped with GPS capabilities, that information is not automatically sent to emergency services when you call 911. Voice calls only send location through cell networks and towers as described above. The data exchange can, at best, take seconds or sometimes minutes. More commonly, it causes long delays in supplying emergency services with your location, or in the frequent worst case scenario, can send no location data at all.
As technology advances, GPS may become more common in helping the police track your phone in an emergency. Apps that require location information, like Uber, are capable of doing so, but the owner of the phone has to send that information manually and deliberately. Until the process becomes more automated, it is better to provide the 911 operator with your location to the best of your abilities.
Things to Remember When You Call 911
We know that in an emergency, it is sometimes difficult to be cool and collected, even when talking with EMS. We invite you to familiarize yourself with this list of things to do when you call 911 so they come naturally even in the face of crisis:
- Tell the emergency operator the location of the emergency right away. Do not rely on the assumption that emergency services can track your phone. For EMS to find and help you as quickly as possible, give them your location first thing.
- Be prepared to give the operator your wireless phone number. 911 dispatch handles hundreds of thousands of calls a day. Give your emergency operator your phone number so that in the event your call gets disconnected, they can call you back.
- Do not hang up until emergency services has the information they need. 911 calls are taken in the order they are received, so if you hang up and call back, your call will be bumped to the bottom of the queue.
While EMS is always striving to keep up with current technological advancements, many emergency operators still do not have the capability to receive texts, photos, or videos. This means it is still imperative to call 911 in a life-threatening or emergency situation. If a case is not an emergency, familiarize yourself with the state-specific number available to handle them. Our CareXM telehealth operators can offer support for medical services that do not merit emergency status.
While a more precise way to track your phone in a crisis could be helpful to emergency responders, current privacy regulations and technological standards limit the possibility. For the time being, give the best location information you can and wait for help to come.