TOLEDO (WTOL) - In 2012, a fire erupted in a home on Oak Street in Rossford.
The occupant and neighbors called 911. Crews responded to Oak Street - in Toledo.
When the wireless 911 calls were made, they pinged off the nearest cell tower, which was in Toledo. The call was mistakenly routed to Lucas County dispatchers, and those dispatchers believed the callers were on Toledo’s Oak Street.
By the time help arrived, the home was destroyed and a dog inside had died.
The nationwide 911 routing problem was exposed in a report four years ago by Brendan Keefe, an investigative reporter for Atlanta’s WXIA, WTOL’s sister station. Keefe uncovered the case of a woman who accidentally drove into a Georgia pond and died after her call for help was routed off a nearby tower, which was in a different jurisdiction.
The issue surfaced again in national headlines last year, when a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Frantic wireless 911 calls from the high school pinged off a tower behind the school - which was in Coral Gables. Not a single call for help went to the right location initially, and valuable seconds were lost. Eventually 17 students and teachers were killed.
“My opinion is that it is a big problem. It’s not something we can’t handle, but it adds seconds, and sometimes seconds matter,” Stacey Mitchell, communications supervisor for Lucas County’s Emergency Services, told WTOL. “It doesn’t mean that we can’t help you or locate you, but it may just take a little bit longer.”
Partly because of Keefe’s reporting, the Federal Communications Commission launched a “Notice of Inquiry" in March, seeking the best way to avoid delays in response to some wireless 911 calls. The commission acknowledged that the system immediately recognizes the location of landline 911 callers, but that there have been issues with wireless 911 calls because they are routed through the nearest tower.
An Uber or Lyft driver immediately picks up the location of a phone, but it may take several seconds for a 911 caller to be located, depending on their service provider, location, and whether or not the caller is inside or outside.
During a test for WTOL at the Lucas County Emergency Services center, a dispatcher identified Mitchell’s call as coming from the 100 block of 23rd Street, several blocks away from the dispatch center from where she was calling.
It is not a widespread problem. Each day, Lucas County answers slightly fewer than 1,000 911 calls. About 75 percent to 80 percent of those calls are wireless, and of those, only a handful are misrouted. The biggest issues involve the border areas of a 911 jurisdiction. Areas in southeast Michigan butt up against Toledo. For those callers, the nearest cell tower is in Toledo, meaning the calls may get sent to Lucas County. A dispatcher will take the caller’s information, including location and call-back number, then transfer the call.
“The thing we do want to stress to people is that the majority of calls do go to the right place,” Wood County Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn said. “It’s that minority of calls that are near a fringe, on a county line, that’s going to cause a problem.”
At the dispatch center in Bowling Green, a little more than 50,000 911 calls were taken in 2018. Of that total, 85 percent were wireless. All the wireless 911 calls are sent through Bowling Green. Wood County is touched by seven other counties, so even though the county is 620 square miles, there are still a lot of border areas. Sometimes calls from those border areas are mistakenly sent to Bowling Green.
“There are seconds that are lost, and we are going to have to repeat the information because we are going to transfer the call to the proper dispatch center,” Wasylyshyn said.
Wireless phones steadily are becoming more prominent than traditional landlines, and the issue of potential delays has factored into at least one local 911 employee’s personal decision making. Lucas County’s Mitchell said she still has a landline because she has small children and doesn’t want to risk a delay if she were to call 911 with a wireless phone.
“Working for 911, I understand that if you are calling from your cell phone, the operator doesn’t automatically have your correct location, so it requires you to tell us where you are at,” she said. “I have small children at home, and I know that if I have a landline that it is set up to go to the correct public safety emergency point and in an emergency, I don’t want them to depend on my small child to tell them where they are at.”
When the FCC launched its investigation last March, it submitted a “heat map,” a map of the United States containing green dots, which indicate 911 calls that were properly routed. Black dots were the misrouted calls. Those were mostly clustered around metropolitan areas with large fringe areas. But there were several groupings in Ohio and southeast Michigan - not caused by dispatcher errors, but by a hole in the 911 system. It may be several more years before location-based routing is available. It will require a jump ahead in technology and also agreement among the major carriers.
In the Lucas County center, dispatcher Beth Webster revealed another issue with wireless 911 calls. Hopefully, within seconds, a dispatcher will get "x" and "y" coordinates, giving rescuers a location within feet - in the best case scenario. But there is no ability to give the "z" coordinates - the vertical location of the caller. If that caller can’t talk or give an exact location, it will be extremely difficult for responders.
“In an apartment building, there’s no way we’re going to find somebody using a cell phone,” Webster, a dispatcher for nearly nine years, said. “We might get the building, but you still don’t know what apartment number.”
All the dispatchers I talked to stressed the importance of callers giving accurate physical locations and call-back numbers in the rare case that a call might drop. Parents also need to teach their young children their address. Mitchell recounted the story of a young boy who had just moved trying to explain to dispatchers where he was located. He didn’t know his new address, but a dispatcher was able to track down his mother’s cell number, and she was able to fill in the details.
The ingenuity of the humans answering the phones is one reason that officials are confident that a gap in technology can continue to be overcome in almost all cases.
Greg Bonfiglio, the GIS analyst for Lucas County, does the mapping for dispatchers, trying to allow dispatchers to send rescuers as close as possible to callers.
“If we could get the GPS directly off the phone and have it sent to the Public Safety Answering Point, rather than the cell phone company trying to figure out your location, that’s a good idea,” he said. “But I’d be fairly confident that we are going to know where you are.”