KFOX14 Investigates: The flaw in 911, making it harder to find you

The El Paso County 911 District receives about a million calls a year, but sometimes the operators struggle to pinpoint your location. About 80 percent of the calls that come in are on a cellphone.

If you call from a cellphone, there’s a chance the operator might not be able to find you.

A flaw in 911’s technology could add seconds or even minutes to the response time.

KFOX14 Investigates obtained a recording of a 911 call from 2015 in which the operator is trying to locate a caller who doesn’t know where she is.

Operator: What is the address or location?

Caller: (US) 54. The Loop.

Caller: Like you are going to Juarez.

Operator: I don’t know where you are at. You are telling me 54. 54 is in the northeast. Are you in the northeast?

Caller: No ma'am.

The caller is confused and grows frustrated as the 911 operator tries to locate her.

Operator: I need to know where you are at cuz I don't know where you're at.

Caller: Well I don’t know because we just crashed.

The caller can be heard speaking to the other person who was in the car with her.

Caller: Where are we?

Operator: Where were you coming from?

The caller then yells at the operator to “hold on.” The call took five minutes before the operator could locate the caller.

“If Google knows what my location is, why shouldn't 911?” said Scott Calderwood, the deputy director for El Paso County’s 911 District.

“Location accuracy is something, as an industry, 911 finds challenging,” said Calderwood.

It’s not just 911's equipment; it's also your cellphone provider. Currently, 911 is unable to tap into the GPS technology in your phone.

Instead, it triangulates cell towers. An operator receives coordinates and then plots the coordinates on a map.

At a time when you can press a button and have an Uber driver or pizza arrive at your door, it raises the question: Why doesn’t 911 have the same technology?

“Unfortunately we are behind in getting that technology,” said Calderwood.

Cellphone providers have not made that technology available to 911 districts and doing so will likely take a new mandate by the Federal Communications Commission. Currently, cellphone providers are not required to make GPS location services available to 911 districts.

“We are waiting for the day when we are able to take advantage of all that technology,” said Calderwood.

Calderwood explains 911 can't make a conversion until a there's a proven method.

“We're not going to replace technology until it's foolproof,” said Calderwood.

He says the risk is just too high.

“Commercial people can afford to take that risk. If they don't get your pizza order, no one is going to die,” said Calderwood.

The 911 District allowed KFOX14 to put their system to the test. We placed calls from right inside 911's headquarters in downtown El Paso.

We tested three carriers, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.

When we called using a Verizon phone, the call initially placed us at 109 Oregon, about four blocks away from where we actually were.

The 911 operator then did what is called a “re-bid” -- asking for updated data from the cell towers.

When she did that, it put us on the same block as the 911 District within about 30seconds.

Next up was AT&T, which initially put us at 122 Texas, also about four blocks away.

Then we tested T-Mobile, which put us outside the county courthouse at 500 E. San Antonio, about three blocks away.

In each case, after submitting re-bids the operator was able to find us within a block after about 30 seconds.

But that can be critical when every second counts.

Calderwood said location accuracy varies in different parts of the county.

“This is a nationwide problem that everybody faces, and in El Paso we're actually a little better off than many other places just because of the equipment that we purchase,” said Calderwood.

He explained El Paso has much better mapping technology than other counties and all 29 entities in the Borderland share the same computer-aided dispatch system, which is rare.

But it helps make sure first responders get to the right address.

Some companies see 911's location flaw as a business opportunity.

A search turns up dozens of 911 apps promising to provide a more accurate location to 911.

Calderwood said you shouldn't use these apps if you need help

“Not all of the apps work. In fact, most of them don't. That's why we really want to caution people. You can't load the app and then test it to see if it works,” said Calderwood.

If federal regulations change, location accuracy for emergency calls may improve in the future.

When that happens, El Paso 911 will be ready.

This summer the district is moving to Northeast El Paso and installing the latest technology, making it next-generation capable.

That will allow operators to see exactly where you are, as soon as you dial 911.

Until then, 911 will rely on its proven system.

“The goal is for 911 to never go down,” said Calderwood.

When 911 makes its move to the northeast, it will have the equipment it needs to tap into your phone's GPS, but it will still take a national change before cellphone providers and the FCC get on board.

The district is also working on having the option to text 911 up and running within the next year or so.

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