By Mary Kate McGrath - October 7, 2020
In September, a 9-1-1 PSAP lost four valuable minutes when it dispatched Fire & EMS to the wrong address, responding three miles out of the way during a cardiac arrest call, according to Statter911. The original dispatcher had unfortunately entered the wrong street address and quadrants, which was caught by one of the EMS responders who noted two addresses being displayed in the vehicle. Once the call was dispatched with closer units, an engine arrived on scene and CPR was reported in progress. This incident emphasized the need to revisit response protocols to ensure emergency response calls aren’t misdirected.
Unfortunately, this was not an isolated occurrence - misdirected 9-1-1 calls occur across the United States, especially in communities lacking in NG911 technology. One city reported dispatching fire and EMS to the wrong location 10 times in one year, either due to dispatch center errors and callers reporting the wrong location or information, as per Statter. The necessary NG911 upgrades are often stalled as emergency call center authorities and telecommunications carriers put off building IT infrastructure and revamping legacy technology to support NG911 capabilities, according to GovTech.
One recent emergency showed the stakes of misdirecting dispatchers - in August, several men tragically died in a boating incident in the Potomac River, as one person on board sent a maritime distress signal after several men went overboard without flotation devices, as per the Washington Post. A fireboat captain radioed dispatch for extra help with the search, requesting assignment for Capital Cove Marina, but rescuers were instead sent to Anacostia Community Boathouse, nearly five miles up the road and on the wrong river. It’s unclear how much time was lost as a result, but the incident still demonstrates how urgent it is that 9-1-1 directives are accurate.
There are several key reasons that 9-1-1 calls can be misdirected. The first is simple human error - a caller, especially someone experiencing the panic of an emergency, might be prone to make a mistake in describing their location. This can be especially true if the caller is not at home and dispatchers don’t have access to cellphone data.
There’s also the possibility a call-taker makes an error or mishears the caller, or some aspect of the emergency gets lost in translation between the call taker and dispatched fire or EMS. These issues can be avoided with appropriate training for call takers and protocol for dropped or incoherent calls.
One major factor in 9-1-1 misdirection is the lack of location data made available to 9-1-1 dispatchers. The technology that many public safety answering points (PSAPs) use across was invented with landlines in mind. Now, in an era of mobile phone technology, it’s never been easier for callers to dial 9-1-1 and more difficult for responders to identify the location of these callers.
In 2017, a study conducted by USA Today found that chances of 9-1-1 receiving location data range from as low as 10% to as high as 95%, according to hundreds of pages of local, state and federal documents. There is no mandate for the collection and study of 9-1-1 data and researchers collected statistics from 9-1-1 officials in hundreds of communities, as well as local, state, and federal government records.
The USA Today study revealed that few communities offer dispatchers reliable access to cell phone location data. For example, two-thirds of cellphone calls in a sample of calls from major cities in Texas, including Austin and Houston, reached 9-1-1 without an instant fix on location from 2010 through 2013. In California, more than half of cellphone calls didn't transmit the location to 9-1-1 from 2011 to 2013.
If the caller is unable to report their location, dispatchers will contact the cell phone provider, a process that wastes valuable time and has often proved unreliable. The most high-tech 9-1-1 call centers have automated this process, digitally requesting the location every few seconds. However, if the system can't locate the device, cellphone carriers' systems will use nearby towers to estimate, and this isn’t always the most accurate information, either.
A comprehensive 9-1-1 solution provides 9-1-1 call takers, first responders, and emergency managers with a powerful tool for handling, dispatching, and responding to emergencies more effectively, including boosting response accuracy and preventing misdirected calls. This includes enhanced location data, including supplementing existing ALI information with enhanced e911 location tracking and access facility information, such as floor plans.
There are many emergencies where seconds count - whether it’s a boating or car accident, or a cardiac incident - and access to reliable location data can save lives.
The NG911 system also has several other features that can enhance dispatcher accuracy - including the integration of Smart911 profiles, which provide call-takers with critical info, including their address, relevant medical information, or photos. The information is volunteered by residents and only accessible once a 9-1-1 call has been instigated. The tool also allows calltakers to communicate via two-way text communications - allowing 9-1-1 to follow up easily with dropped calls or reach out in situations where a voicecall may not be possible.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
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