Lawdog recently wrote a post about 911 calls and cell phones, the short version is that you can always dial 911 with your phone, regardless if you have an active account with that carrier or not. Case in point, I have a old phone in my Jeep from the last company I worked for that has not been turned on in a few years, but if the battery were good I could turn it on and make a 911 call with that phone even though I’m 3 states away from that phones home network. You can get the full version here, look around that site if you haven’t already been there before.
Now when I first started in my line of work (for wireless phone carriers) I didn’t know this either. I had to learn it the hard way, but that’s just about the best way (or the only way I learn according to Nurseschatzie). The company I worked for at the time had changed the way our test phones were billed and our group ended up not paying our bill and all of our phones were turned off (two states worth of inside and outside techs worth of phones). I was at a cub scout meeting talking up my phone system when it was shut off and all I could call was 911. Made me, and the company I worked for at the time look real good, ‘bout par for the course I say.
Here is the skinny on 911 services for those of you who don’t know. A few years back the Fed mandated that all carriers would have X percentage of 911 calls routing to what is known as Phase II 911. This means that the helpful 911 operator can pull your GPS location within 10 to 20 meters or so. Sounds great right? Well getting to that place took some work on everyone’s part, even yours. The carriers usually ran to a Phase 0, or Phase 1 line when this started. Phase 0 was just a straight pipe to the 911 center for the county the site was sitting in. There wasn’t any information passed along with this call. Phase 1 was when the operator could see your phone number, the phone number assigned to what ever sector you were connected to, and the GPS location of the tower (so they would know your very general location). Phase 0 required one kind of routing that was very simple, Phase 1 required a special line to the 911 center. Phase 2 required yet another special line to the 911 center, as well as a couple of people in between who crunched data and figured out where in the world you were for the GPS stuff. The carrier had to pay for all these new lines, as well as paying for the people in between, not to mention paying people like me to built these routing systems in the offices that connect cell towers to Ma Bell. The 911 centers for each county (most large cities have their own separate from the county as well) had to shell out for new equipment to read all this data as well. What did you have to do for all of this cool new big brother knows where you are kind of stuff? You had to buy new high speed low drag phones with GPS chips in them or else none of it works anyway.
With all that money being paid out the carriers begged and pleaded with the Fed time and time again and the deadline got pushed out a few times. I’m pretty sure that everyone is up to standard now at least as much as they can be, there are still some smaller counties that have not upgraded enough to use Phase II yet. The penalty for a carrier that is non-compliant is pretty stiff (I think the little mom and pop I worked for a couple of years back shelled out half a million for being late).
So, here is how your 911 calls should work now if you’ve got a newer phone and aren’t way out in the sticks somewhere.
You: dialing 911 to report seeing an axe murderer stealing a case of bud light
911: Operator: 911 what is your emergency?
You: I need to report a murder and theft please.
911: (typing in the background) Sir/Mam, are you in the location where this occurred?
You: Yes I am, I’m in the parking lot and the axe murder is inside going to town on the beer cooler now.
911: Please stay on the line while I dispatch the police.
All this time the operator has been pulling information off of your phone call such as your phone number, carrier and GPS location. They use mapping programs that match your GPS location with a local street map so they know where to send the cops. In this case they know that you’re sitting in the parking lot of the local 7-11 on Main Street. It’s pretty cool stuff, but most folks don’t have any idea of how much work goes into that phone call, now you know a little about it. Go You.
I’ve talked to 911 operators all over the south and most of them are pretty cool about things. Bigger cities are harder to work with, but they have real calls to take care of. Most little counties hardly ever get calls, and we would all like to keep it that way. I have made test calls at night to some places and I will be the only call they get all night. These folks are usually the best to talk to because they are not rushed and they will take the time to find all the info on the call so I can make sure everything is set up right. They are also the ones that will sometimes give me a hard time for not pronouncing the town, or counties name correctly. After they find out that I’m actually on the other end of the state they are a little more understanding, and we all get a laugh out of it. They laugh at me for not knowing where in the world they are, even though my phone call looks like I’m just down the street from them, and I get a kick out of them trying to figure out how I can sit in a large city in NC and make my call look like I’m sitting in the middle of Myrtle Beach.
One last thing, if you ever have a 911 calling issue on your cell phone don’t hesitate to call in a trouble ticket. These tickets get all kinds of attention. They are very high profile for every carrier that I have ever worked with. No one wants to be on the 5 o’clock news being the scapegoat for something being murdered because they dialed 911 on the cell, but it was sent to the wrong county. Trust me on this, these call routing tickets are important to everyone.