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Archive for Friday, April 6, 2007

Dispatchers: Inexact location better than nothing

April 6, 2007

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Jim Denney could dial 911 on his cell phone from his second-floor office at the Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, and an emergency dispatcher's computer might show the call originated in an apartment parking lot across the street.

With someone else's cell phone, the same call might appear to the dispatcher as coming from 1,000 yards away.

And yet another call might be traceable within a couple feet.

Pinpointing the location of a cell phone caller can be inexact, but to Denney, director of Douglas County Emergency Communications, at least it's something.

"However bad it is," he said, "it's infinitely better than nothing."

Nothing is what Douglas County emergency dispatchers had before April 2004 when cell phone users dialed 911.

"We had no idea," Denney said. "If we didn't know where you were or you couldn't tell us where you were, we had no clue.

"Now it's going to get you down, in a worst scenario, within 1,000 yards away."

When a cell call comes in to an emergency dispatcher, it shows the coordinates from where the call is placed.

A dispatcher can pull up a map and satellite images for that site.

Several factors can affect how accurate the information is: whether the call comes from inside a building, how many cell phone towers there are in an area and what method cell phone companies use to track their calls.

So Denney said dispatchers still ask callers where they are.

"It's not unusual for people to believe it's 100 percent accurate and 100 percent functional," he said. "It's not perfect."

Denney would welcome any improvement to the technology.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin said he would propose ways to improve 911 call tracking.

"It's a great tool, and it's helped a lot," Denney said. "But it's not perfect. I think what the FCC director is saying is, 'Make it more perfect.' And I agree with that, but it's an expensive technology."

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