Salt Lake City — (KUTV) We live in a day and age where calling 911 anytime, anywhere, is easier than ever. But getting 911 dispatchers to track your location is harder than ever.
Your smart phone allows Uber drivers, video games apps and social media accounts, like Instagram, to pinpoint your exact location — yet 911 dispatchers are left scrambling to find you.
With 70 percent of all 911 calls made nationally on cell phones, 2News wanted to know how well your location can be tracked in a life-or-death situations.
We gathered phones from the four major carriers and stopped at Utah’s largest dispatch center, Valley Emergency Communications Center in West Valley City.
AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile phones were tested along with old flip phones that were no longer in service. What we found was startling and should serve as a wake-up call to anyone who calls 911 on their cell phone.
“911, What is the address of your emergency?”
It’s the first question dispatchers ask, and for good reason. A dispatcher's first goal is to get help on the way. If they don’t know where to send help, there is little they can do beyond keeping you calm and talking you through your emergency over the phone.
Jason Mettmann, a dispatch supervisor at VECC, is frustrated by the lack of location information from cell phone users. He said they have people ask why dispatchers can’t pinpoint their location all the time. They say, “You should know where I am. Can't you track GPS on my phone?”
Mettmann and his crew are forced to explain, on a daily basis, that they simply don't have that capability.
Apps like Pokemon-Go and Uber can track your every move, because you have accepted the terms and conditions of their operating system. Your acceptance gives your permission to be tracked to your exact GPS location. Emergency dispatchers don't have that luxury, and instead rely on cell towers from the major carriers and what is called triangulation. If the triangulation system works, the longer you are on the phone, the closer and closer the cell towers can pinpoint your location as they relay information between towers nearest to where your call was made.
Cell phone tests
KUTV’s tests of the four major carriers were performed at VECC on randomly selected phones from the KUTV staff. Heidi Hatch and photojournalist Matt Michela made the calls as dispatcher supervisors watched and answered the incoming 911 calls.
First up, Verizon.
The call was made and returned with a location tracking to 32 meters.
Sprint offered similar results with a degree of confidence within 22 meters.
T-Mobile came back with a location confidence of 32 meters.
The call made on our AT&T phone came as a shock. The dispatcher could not tell us anything about our location.
No phone number. No GPS coordinates. No carrier. No record found.
The dispatcher, trained to figure out where the caller is located, immediately started in on a line of questioning.
“Are you in a building or a street?” Once we confirmed the call was made in a building, the request was made to look for mail, ask someone for an address or look outside on the building for a number. We were able to give an address because we knew where we were shooting our story. Had this been an actual emergency, there is no guarantee those questions could accurately be answered.
Hoping our AT&T call was an anomaly, we called again on the same AT&T phone with the same results.
“Nothing changed here," the dispatcher said.
The dispatcher was left with absolutely nothing. What if something were wrong?
The dispatcher matter-of-factly answered, “I would need you to tell me where you are.”
Concerned about the results, we asked to borrow two more AT&T phones, this time from VECC engineers who happened to be walking by.
Our third and fourth AT&T calls yielded the same result: nothing.
While we were shocked, this dispatch supervisor was not surprised at all.
”AT&T phones are currently having a problem giving us any accurate information at all," the dispatcher said. "It's not plotting anything. It didn't give me any location whatsoever.”
Mettmann, who was supervising on that shift, noted that “It's not every time - but often times with AT&T calls that come in - we do not get any location information.”
Response times in these cases are slowed, potentially putting lives on the line. For dispatchers, it can be "extremely frustrating.”
Mettmann said he and his crew “want to get people the help they need as fast as possible.”
911's fatal flaw
If you or a loved one are in an car crash and call 911 while in shock or too disoriented to give an accurate location, you could be left for a long time while dispatchers work to sign legal documents and ask your cell carrier for more information. Without a phone number or cell carrier, the help might not ever make it.
If a call you make to 911 comes up with “no record found,” this would also mean dispatchers would not be able to call back if you hang up or the call is disconnected.
“It is paramount," said Geana Randall, communications director for VECC. "If we don't have an accurate, correct address to get medical or police or fire out to you, our hands are tied”
She said there is little that can be done.
She said VECC knew there was a problem in early October, but in the beginning, “the carrier at fault was still a mystery.” With no information coming in from the “no record” found calls, VECC’s IT team had to do old fashioned detective work to pinpoint the problem.
While the IT team tracked what appeared to be an anomaly, Randall said they found out “all of our partner centers are having the same issue.”
Utah has 33 different dispatch centers — all of which track data differently — some are too small to figure out the issue on their own.
VECC’s IT team eventually tracked the problem as an AT&T issue in the fall of 2016.
When we performed our tests Jan. 23 of this year, the “no record” found issue was already in its fourth month. VECC’s tech team confirmed they had been pushing through call logs and complaints through to AT&T that entire time without any real response, fix or action.
“There is nothing we can change and nothing you as a citizen and cell phone user can change. It is something they have to change. I don't know what it is, but it is on their (AT&T’s) end,” Randall said.
2News contacted AT&T a week after our tests to find out what was wrong. We were told the company would look into the issue and get back to us. With no response yet from AT&T, we made another call to VECC who said the “problem had just been fixed.”
For verification, we returned and tested two AT&T phones. Both came up with the proper location and caller information.
VECC's Director John Morgan, an AT&T customer, tested his own phone, and even though it worked he still he warned, “You should always know where you are before calling 911.”
"People need to be aware and proactive and say this is where I am.”
It is important to note that we also tested out of service flip phones. The flip phones, while not perfect, gave a lot more information than the AT&T calls before the issue was fixed. The older phones, no longer in service, gave a carrier where the phone was last connected and pinpointed a location to 960 meters. In a crowded city, this location is better than nothing, but could still slow down an emergency response because responders would have an area of nearly 10 football fields in any direction to search for you.
That information is however a start. (All cell phones must legally be able to call 911, as long as the phone has a charge.)
The good news? The problem with AT&T appears to be fixed at VECC. AT&T gave us the following response:
We take our responsibility to provide emergency services seriously. When we were alerted that certain calls to this center were not being correctly identified, we engaged our care team and were able to determine the issue and resolve it, all services are now running normally. Nationally we have taken a leadership role in working to provide next generation 911 services and will continue to support the safety needs of our customers and their communities.
-- Tom Hopkins, AT&T Public Affairs.
What was causing the problem is still not clear. AT&T and VECC gave differing answers and final reports have not yet been received.
2 News will pass along that information as soon as it is made available along with lingering concerns that this issue with AT&T is more widespread than their representatives have said. AT&T called this an “isolated issue” but calls to dispatch centers across the state lead 2News to believe VECC is not the only center with these issues. We are checking into anecdotal reports of similar “no record” found calls in multiple jurisdictions and counties.
Meanwhile, dispatchers say “being a frequent caller helps” them track your location. Even if your cell phone provider can’t track you, a previous call may help them with call back information and your home address.