WKYT Investigates: 911 Disconnect, Madison County Dispatchers Talk Trouble Spots

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RICHMOND, Ky. (WKYT) - The death Music Icon Prince brought to the forefront a possible disconnect in a cellphone's ability to connect with 911 dispatchers.

A portion of the transcript from the day Prince died says:
UM: We have someone who is unconscious.
D1: Okay, what's the address?
UM: Um, we're at Prince's house.
D1: Okay, does anybody know the address? Is there any mail around that you could look at?
UM: Yea, yea, okay, hold on.
D1: Okay, your cell phone's not going to tell me where you're at, so I need you to find me an address.
UM: Yea, we have um, yea, we have um, so, yeah, um, the person is dead here.

Eventually, another person yells out the address.

The inability of Minneapolis dispatcher to locate the cellphone location, sent WKYT's investigations team on search to see if the same thing could happen here. Madison County Emergency Operations team agreed to work with WKYT on the test.

Wendy Lynch, Madison County 911 Director, sent WKYT a list of trouble areas they've had in the county over the past year -- places where they weren't able to easily identify where the cell phone was calling from. Most of the trouble spots were in rural parts of the county.

WKYT's Miranda Combs tested four different areas of the county. With the cooperation of Madison 911 dispatch, Combs called from her cellphone from multiple locations. For the first three calls, a dispatcher was able to get within feet, if not exactly locate Combs' location. On the forth call, Combs was in front of Newby Grocery, well inside Madison County. However, Garrard County dispatch picked up the 911 call.

"We'd be old and white-headed by the time they found us," said Newby Grocery Owner Jerry Rose. "People's in here all the time lost. So I know if they broke down or got hurt they wouldn't know where they are at."

Madison County dispatchers explained, since it is a rural area, cellphone signals bounce off neighboring county cell towers. They said pinpointing a location is a two-part process. When a person calls 911 from a cell phone, they first see the cell phone tower the person hit, which may not be close to the caller.

Then comes the second phase, which during WKYT's test, took more than a minute at times, to pinpoint the location using latitude and longitude. "I think it does take precious moments away, if you aren't aware of your surroundings, or if you are unable to speak your surroundings. It takes a little bit of time to get those calls for service started," Lynch said. But she said while the second phase is working to pinpoint the call, first responders are already heading toward the caller.

Madison County officials said SMART 911 is available in their county and can be a great asset for cellphone users and dispatchers during an emergency.

"We're going to get you what you need," said Dispatcher Ashley King.

WKYT News

By Miranda Combs

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