911's fatal flaw
Amber Boyd is a part-time Uber driver. Last December, she picked up a young woman on the side of the road, in the middle of the night, soaking wet with no shoes.
Boyd took her to The Villas, an apartment complex on Birmingham’s Southside.
Boyd drove up and parked outside. Her passenger got out of the car and walked inside one of these apartments. That’s when Boyd started hearing a lot of commotion behind closed doors.
“You could hear a distinct man and woman’s voice,” Boyd said. “You could also hear someone bamming up against the door, or the wall, from my car.”
Boyd called 911 on her smartphone at 2:44 a.m. She said she told the Birmingham 911 operator she was at The Villas apartments — but she didn’t have an exact address.
A bad connection
Alabama law prevents us from reviewing the 911 audio. But Birmingham 911 Director Greg Silas says there was a bad connection during part of that call.
The Birmingham 911 operator didn’t hear “The Villas” — only “apartments.”
Birmingham 911 transferred the call to Homewood 911.
During the call, another problem developed.
“They said that was not in their jurisdiction,” Boyd said. “So, they transferred me to Homewood. I tell the story to Homewood P.D. They tell me it’s not in their jurisdiction, that it’s in Birmingham P.D. So they transfer me back.”
Silas says Boyd’s general location appeared on the operator’s screen as Homewood — a neighboring police jurisdiction.
“On the screen, it showed the tower address, which was the best address it could give,” Silas said. “It was unable to see multiple towers. And it showed a tower address that was in Homewood.”
Birmingham Police arrived 21 minutes after the first 911 call
Boyd called 911 three times: 2:44 a.m., 2:57 a.m., and she was on the phone a third time, at 3:05 a.m., as Birmingham Police arrived.
A precious 21 minutes went by.
“Scared for her. Worried,” Boyd said. “Not knowing what’s going on, on the other side of that wall.”
Boyd posted a photo on Facebook of her passenger being carried out of the apartment on a gurney.
The victim had allegedly been abused by her husband, although she declined to press charges. The victim’s father said his daughter suffered cracked ribs and a possible concussion.
Birmingham Police say Boyd’s 911 call was classified as a “disorderly person or fight” — not a domestic violence call.
“The No. 1 problem 911 has nationwide is location accuracy”
But Silas says police should have been able to arrive at the apartments in less than 10 minutes. That’s if the 911 system could have extracted more specific location data from Boyd’s cell phone.
“Oh, it’s awful,” Silas said. “The No. 1 problem 911 has nationwide is location accuracy.”
Smartphone apps like Uber use a combination of cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and cell phone tower data to locate you when you need a ride.
But 911 systems collect location data from the nearest cell phone tower — not the technology in your cell phone, that delivers more specific location information.
“Unless you see three or more towers, it has no means to triangulate you,” Silas said. “So what we end up with is the closest tower location which could be a mile from where you’re at. It is insane.”
Shocking results when we tested location accuracy with a cell phone
In Jefferson County, the most populous county in the state of Alabama, there are 17 different 911 centers. The districts bounce around. So, depending upon where you are, your cell phone call could easily route to the wrong 911 center.
We did a test with Jeff Dempsey, Jefferson County 911’s IT expert. He used his cell phone to call 911 inside the Jefferson County 911 center where he works.
“OK, right here I got Birmingham,” Dempsey said.
Then he walked about 12 feet, called 911 again, and connected with the Jefferson County 911 call processor right next to him.
JEFFCO 911 call processor: “Jefferson County 911, where is your emergency?”
Dempsey: “Just doing a test call.”
“That seems crazy,” I said.
“It does,” said Jefferson County 911 Director Howard Summerford. “But that’s just a small example of what can happen, and is happening, all over the county every day.”
911 calls from landlines work differently
When you call 911 using a landline, operators know your exact location based on the address where your phone is installed. That’s what pulls up on their computer screens—and you don’t even have to tell them.
But most calls to 911 centers across the country come from cell phones — not landlines.
And that’s a big problem if you can’t tell 911 operators exactly where you are.
“The truth remains that that side of your phone — that piece of our cell phone technology — is not fully integrated yet with the 911 side,” said Christopher Carver, operations director for the National Emergency Number Association. NENA is the association representing the 911 system across the country.
Working on the problem
The cell phone industry is developing a national emergency address database.
It’ll make use of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and other technologies to provide more accurate location information when you call 911 using a cell phone.
The upgrade is designed to automatically provide 911 operators with street addresses, and even apartment and office numbers.
Silas says we should start seeing improvements in the Birmingham area in about 18 months.
But it’ll take four years before the system is upgraded across the country.
That’s because there are 300 million mobile devices, 6,000 different 911 centers, and five different major cell phone companies.
It’s a complex system that all needs to work together.
What you should do when calling 911 from a cell phone now
Experts say tell the 911 operator the name of an intersection, or a recognizable landmark, if you don’t know the exact address.
And keep in mind, 911 operators are trying to locate you as fast as possible.
So, be sure to answer all their questions.