Aging 911 Systems Undermined by Smartphone Technology

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Photo by Damian Gadal via Flickr

Yeming Shen, a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, called 911 on Feb. 10. He was alone in his Troy, N.Y., apartment, dying of the flu. The garbled call was unintelligible, and police couldn’t pinpoint the phone’s location. He was later found dead by his roommate.

The case highlights issues that have plagued 911 phone systems since the advent of smartphones.

Cellphone privacy settings and outdated dispatch mapping systems continue to frustrate first responders when they can’t find callers, reports the Washington Post. 911 systems are getting old, and the public can be in danger when they fail. Landline numbers are much easier for these systems to pinpoint. More than 80 percent of the calls to the nation’s 911 centers are from cellphones.

The Federal Communications Commission has required cellphone carriers to improve the transfer of information to 911 centers. Carriers have until 2021 to make sure transmitted locations are within 50 yards 80 percent of the time. Ohio teenager Kyle Plush proposed to modify the Apple Watch to include a distress signal function that would send an exact location to first responders.

Two months later, he became trapped under a seat in his minivan. When he called 911, the operator couldn’t understand the breathless teenager. He was found dead in his car. His family has started the Kyle Plush Answer the Call Foundation to bring awareness to the aging 911 infrastructure.

Another incident ended with the 2017 death of Charles Romine near Dayton. It took two days for the Sheriff’s Office to find the body of the 71-year-old man after he called 911 for help.

The response to the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fl., was delayed because calls to 911 were routed to two different dispatch centers depending on whether callers were using cellphones or landlines. Overwhelmed by the volume of calls, dispatch dropped some and didn’t transfer others.

See also: Why I’ll Never Dial 911, The Crime Report, Feb 6, 2018

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