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Helpful information and tips on wireless 9-1-1

By Joseph Giamberdino

Calling 911 on a traditional landline phone means the dispatcher can automatically trace your call to the exact address–but most emergency calls are now made with a cellphone. Wireless 911 is not 100 percent accurate. Here’s what you should know about mobile cellphones and emergency calls.  

Who is responsible for answering a 911 call?

When a call is placed via 9-1-1, it is automatically routed to the nearest call center, called a public safety answering point (PSAP). The responding PSAP is coordinated based on proximity to the cellphone tower that routes the incoming emergency call. That’s so the emergency operator has a basic understanding of the caller’s location. 

Both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as well as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) maintain an interactive map of the PSAPs that exist across the United States. Check out the map to see the closest PSAP to your home. (We’ll tell you why this is important in a bit.) 

How accurate is wireless 9-1-1? 

Around 80 percent of all emergency calls now come from cellphones, according to the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA). If you use a cellphone to dial 9-1-1, your service provider is responsible for locating you and communicating that to the dispatcher.

The service providers (think Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, etc.) triangulate the position of the caller using the cellphone towers that route the call. That means they’re able to locate you within about 330 yards of your exact position.  

In most cases, that can help you, but Chicago TV stations have shown the shortcomings of wireless in some instances. Check out this harrowing 2019 story by NBC 5 of a stroke victim trying to get help from his hotel room. Thankfully, the technology is getting better, allowing many smartphones to automatically share exact locations with emergency dispatchers. We provide resources below on how to activate this location technology on your smartphone–but remember, this doesn’t cover out-of-date smartphones or non-smartphones.

So What Can I Do to Stay Safe?

Fortunately, you can help ensure your safety in the case of an emergency. If you are interested in registering your cellphone with a specific address or seeing whether or not the cellphone company is able to accurately locate where you are calling from, you can begin by placing a call to your local PSAP via a non-emergency number. This map from the Department of Homeland Security lists the name and non-emergency number of PSAPs.

Just remember: Don’t test 911 by calling it when you don’t have an emergency. Again: Never call 9-1-1 unless there is an emergency. That can tie-up the lines and put people in emergency situations at risk.

In addition, many cellphone manufacturing companies are now working to develop technology that aids emergency services. The latest Android and iOS devices now have emergency location technology already installed that just needs to be activated by the user. This article provides an overview of how to set up and activate these new forms of technology on both types of cellphone operating systems.

So in an emergency, what are the best practices for calling 911 on my mobile phone? 

When making an emergency call via cellphone, try to follow these tips in order to increase your chances of being aided as quickly as possible.

  • Immediately inform the emergency operator of the location of the emergency
  • Provide the operator with your cellphone number in case of a disconnected call
  • DO NOT send text messages, photos or videos, as the current technology does not allow for emergency operators to receive them
  • Speak clearly, and remain as calm as possible in order to speed up interactions

For more information about making calls via wireless phone, visit Safety.com, or the FCC website.