County exploring relationship between 911, cell phones
With more and more people using cell phones instead of landlines, how easy is it to pinpoint a cell phone’s location during an emergency?
That answer varies based on a number of factors, according to Jackson County Sheriff Tim Morse and Sherri Ladner, 911 administrator.
“It depends upon the carrier. Some carriers are more precise than others,” Morse said. “I think things are changing so that coverage is better all around.”
Morse said getting a “fix” on a cell phone’s location also depends on where the company’s cell phone towers are in the county and if they are up to date.
“A lot of the 911 calls map to the carrier’s tower so that really doesn’t help us too much,” Ladner said. “We try to rerun those calls through to get a better location, but sometimes we can’t.”
Morse said that there are some instances, however, when a 911 call placed by a cell phone can be tracked to a specific room in a building.
“More and more people are moving away from landlines, and it is getting more important that we locate cell phones for when people are in need,” Morse said.
A total of 3,147 calls were made to 911 in the county in 2014, with more than half placed by cell phones.
In 2013, the communication center handled 3,526 emergency calls with 61.5 percent made from cell phones, according to the sheriff’s annual report.
Morse said that cell phones allow people to report accidents and incidents quicker than in the past.
“We get a lot of calls while people are out on the go,” Morse said. “We get numerous reports daily about erratic drivers or accidents on the highway. In the past, you had to go to a house to find a phone and report something.”
Ladner noted that TracFones, which are phones that come with a prepaid plan and no contract, are more difficult to pinpoint for 911 purposes than phones connected with a specific wireless phone carrier.
In the case of a major, life-threatening emergency, law enforcement can contact a cell phone company directly to have the company “ping” the phone to determine its location, Ladner said.
“That’s pretty accurate, and we’ve had to do that on several occasions,” she said, noting it was used to locate a resident in 2009 who was threatening suicide. “We found her, and she did not die.”
Ladner said residents who may need to depend on using a cell phone’s location during an emergency should make sure that the GPS on their cell phone is turned on and enabled.
In 2012, the 911 system for the county’s dispatch center was overhauled and improved through a grant from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“Updating our 911 system did give us the ability to track a cell phone if the person is moving to a different location,” Ladner said. “We don’t use it a lot and not every carrier offers it, but we have the capability to do that if all the circumstances are right.”
Morse said the technology to pinpoint cell phones is getting better each year.
“Our 911 upgrade was a big step from where we were years ago and it’s something that continues to improve,” he said.
The state of Kansas is working on implementing a new Next Generation GIS (geographic information system) 911 system across the state. The new system will be a large database of addresses and roads throughout the state. Calls are expected to be processed through this database as opposed to running through phone companies.
In Kansas, each phone customer pays 53 cents a month in 911 fees for any device capable of contacting 911, whether it’s a landline or wireless phone. All the fees are collected by the state, and the county is allocated half of the amount collected in the county each month, Ladner said.
In 2014, the county received $79,000 from the phone fees and those funds must be spent on items directly connected to the county’s public safety answering points (PSAPs), such as 911 equipment, consoles, headsets and radio equipment. 911 funds cannot be used for salaries or office supplies.
The Jackson County dispatch center operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week with eight full-time dispatchers, working on eight-hour shifts.
Morse and Ladner said that old cell phones, even though they don’t have a service contract anymore, can still call 911 if they are charged and that sometimes a child playing with an old cell phone will accidentally call 911.
“Just take the battery out and then give it to them to play with,” Ladner said.