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Problem finding 911 callers prompts call for change

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 News) - It can be a life-saving tool most of us have at our finger tips: a cell phone to call 911 in an emergency. But what happens when 911, can't find you?
SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 News) - It can be a life-saving tool most of us have at our finger tips: a cell phone to call 911 in an emergency. But what happens when 911, can't find you? It's a problem seen here in Utah.

The problem happens when calls to 911 are made from a cell phone inside a building. Cell phone signals are strong enough to go through thick, concrete walls, but 911 dispatchers rely on GPS signals which are weaker and have a higher frequency and can bounce back.

“Every minute counts in true emergencies,” said Scott Freitag, Communications Director for Salt Lake City 911.

1500 calls come into Salt Lake City’s 911 dispatch center every day. Most include the location of a caller, but not all.

"Only the address of the cell tower shows up, that can be miles, literally, away from where the caller is calling from,” said Freitag.

It's happening at an alarming rate here in Utah. New data released by the Federal Communications Commission shows more than one third of all calls made to 911 from wireless phones in Utah don't include accurate location information necessary to find a caller in crisis.

Experts say it can be pose a problem in worst-case situations, such as an active-shooter scenario in a school.

"In the situation of an active-shooter particularly in a large school where the shooter may be moving around, that certainly makes it more challenging for the officer trying to get to that shooter quickly,” said Freitag.

During a drill at Alta High School in 2012, cell phones didn't to work.

"We heard stories of people calling from cell phones and the dispatchers not being able to find out where they were because the addresses weren't coming through,” said Jeff Haney, spokesperson for Canyons School District.

Taking no chances, Canyons School District began re-installing land lines in every classroom.

“You have to stop and think, ‘well goodness if I was in a situation where I needed help with your family, in a car, away from your office, I think it's alarming to everyone,” said Haney.

The FCC estimates 70 percent calls to 911 are made from wireless phones. As more households ditch their land lines, a call for change has begun.

Find Me 911, a coalition of 160,000 emergency responders and 911 dispatchers from around the country is putting pressure on the FCC to fix the problem, not just in Utah, but nationwide.

"The FCC has for some time required that wireless cell phone carriers provide a location when you call 911, that requirement has never been if you call from indoors,” said Jamie Barnett, director of Find Me 911 Coalition.

The group wants the FCC to adopt indoor location requirements. They claim the technology is there, but cell carriers aren't using it.

"It's a problem, it's a problem,” said Eric Parry, director of the state of Utah 911 program.

Utah is trying to get a better grasp on how big the problem here really is. A state 911 committee is conducting their own investigation to see how many calls do not include a location.

"We want to know where we stand, we want to know if there is a problem or is there not a problem,” said Parry.

In the meantime, all eyes are on the wireless carriers.

“Why can't the carrier implement this technology right now?” asked ABC 4 Utah’s Kim Johnson. “Good question, you'd have to ask them,” said Parry.

“You don't want to speculate?” asked Johnson. "Well probably cost,” said Parry.

ABC 4 Utah did reach out several carriers for comment, but haven't received any responses from AT&T, Sprint or T-Mobile. A spokesperson for Verizon provided this statement:

“Verizon Wireless is delivering accurate location data for 90% of 911 calls in Utah by using the best technology solution available today in full compliance with FCC regulations,” wrote Meagan Dorsch, Verizon Wireless spokesperson.

For now, it's a worst-case scenario for all teachers and students. Choosing between a land line or the cell in your hand is one call most hope to never make.

Utah isn't alone. Other states’ dispatchers have reported issues with locating callers.

Click here for a break-down of nationwide data.

Click here to read a letter from the nation's top law enforcement associations to the FCC calling for new requirements.

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