Calling 911 or 311 May be Harder than You Think

Ideas and Issues

emergency response, 911, 311

March 31, 2021

New Orleans               We teach our children almost from their first breath how to call 911 if they find themselves facing danger or an emergency and can get to a phone. Mostly, that works well, depending on the city and its police department’s response capability. Some cities, like New Orleans, also have 311 numbers they are useful in handling localized issues like garbage pickup, water line breaks, and general nuisances. Then children get older, and we like the fact that their phones still are reminders of home with local area codes that signify where they were born and raised, if they were lucky enough not move every couple of years.

Where does 911 ring when they are far afield? I started thinking about this when I heard about an ACORN leader in New Orleans who had been evacuated to Houston during Hurricane Katrina and ended having to get a new phone – and number – while a refugee from the city and lost her old 504, keeping the 832, which came with Texas. When she hits 911 or 311, the call is picked up in Houston. That’s a problem, and got me looking around. Hitting the internet, it turns out that this is of course not the way it is supposed to work, but in fact is a problem that is not uncommon, and therefore even more worrisome to me.

Hitting 911 on your phone is supposed to ping to the nearest cell tower, according to the telecoms, so that it can be handled appropriately. In fact, the telecoms concede that if you are near the border lines between different area codes, you may find yourself urgently calling a different city. Their response is that where ever your call was answered should transfer the call to the proper jurisdiction. Does that sound like a plan or a system? Hardly, it sounds like they just shifted the responsibility to the local police department, often overburdened, to be able to seamlessly handle this crisis in a timely fashion. What could go wrong? Everything, it seems to me!

It doesn’t get better as I dug deeper. In some areas, your 911 operators are not local as they are in New Orleans, but you are ending up in a regional call center. In that case, since 911 calls don’t reveal your location, you can count on answering a series of questions so that they can route you locally, while you are screaming that someone is breaking into your house or needs an ambulance at a car wreck. The FCC is trying to get location and GPS data on these calls, but the range can be up to 1000 feet, which might not work well for you.

the FCC’s Enhanced 911 (E911) rules,… have increasingly strict requirements. At present, they require nationwide carriers to provide latitude and longitude location-tracking capabilities to 911 dispatchers that are accurate within 50-300 meters, depending on the type of technology the carrier uses. This location information must be available for at least 50% of wireless 911 calls, a requirement which increases to 70% in 2020.

And, get ready for this. According to ATT’s information, last updated in 2018, some jurisdictions, like those in the Los Angeles area, require you to dial 1-and-7 digits. For all I know, that may be the story more broadly for those with area codes on their mobile phones different from where they live. Oh, and some sources advise you to not use a mobile phone to dial 911. Are you kidding, how many land line phones are out there for anyone less than sixty years old?

The FCC seems to be sleeping at the switch on this and not pushing the telecoms to do better, while most of us are merrily thinking it’s no problem and your local cop shop has got this. Where ever you are, you might want to do a bit of research on this now, before you need help urgently. Just saying.