Cellphones 'difficult, frustrating' for 911 dispatch

Canadians continue to forego old-fashioned landline telephones in favour of cellphones as their only source of communication, and emergency dispatch operators say that can compromise safety.

911 operators say using cellphones exclusively can increase response time

According to Stats Can, 50 per cent of households in the 18-34 age bracket were using only cellphones in 2010, up from 34 per cent in 2008. (Graeme Roy/Canadian Press)

The increasing number of cellphones being used in favour of traditional landlines can compromise public safety, emergency dispatch operators say.

Lori Powers, the director of 911 dispatch centre in Windsor, Ont., said dealing with even legitimate emergency calls made from a cellphone can be "difficult and frustrating."

That's because calls made from cellphones do not provide details as accurate as those from a call placed from a landline. In most municipalities, operators instantly access a name, address and phone number and send first responders immediately when a resident calls 911.

However, when a cellphone is used from inside a residence, operators receive the phone number, a latitude and longitude and what is called "an uncertainty value" that gives an approximate radius in metres from where the call originated.

"The accuracy is very differing. It’s not an exact pinpoint of where you are," said Powers, who has worked at dispatch for 28 years.

That approximation could vary three or four city blocks, sometimes "thousands of metres," depending on cell towers in the location, she said.

However, in 2010, the CRTC said operators can now identify a caller's location within a radius of 10 to 300 metres — versus a previous radius of up to 20 kilometres in rural areas.

Kids and cellphones

Lori Powers, the director of the 911 centre in Windsor, Ont., says kids should never play with old cellphones.

Some cellphones, while not active, have the ability to call 911 in an emergency if the phone is charged, Powers said, adding she knows of a case where a child called 911 repeatedly for two hours before police could track the phone end the calls.

If cellphone users do not have any pre-paid minutes or a service plan, they are still able to dial 911 in an emergency situation.

Powers encourages parents to discard old cellphones if they are no longer in use.

During an emergency, time and the location of those in distress are critical. Sometimes, the person calling 911 isn’t able to speak or is not the one suffering a medical emergency, such as a heart attack or stroke, and isn’t able to accurately say where they are.

Powers said callers are often asked for street names, street signs, landmarks or businesses in an effort to pinpoint their location.

"It’s very difficult and frustrating," she said. "There’s a lot of stress involved. You ask a lot of question to help people pinpoint where they are."

Powers encouraged victims of domestic abuse to always have a landline.

"We can hear an argument or violence in the background and with enhanced 911 we can start the police right away," she said.

Currently, Powers said, dispatchers cannot track a moving cellphone — operators only know the initial location of the call — so someone driving or being chased cannot be tracked. However, that will change in the coming years, she added. Technology is "definitely going to improve."

Cell use rising rapidly

According to Statistics Canada, 13 per cent of Canadian households reported using a cellphone exclusively in 2010, up from eight per cent in 2008. However, in the same year, 50 per cent of households in the 18-34 age bracket were using only cellphones, up from 34 per cent in 2008.

Powers said emergency dispatchers can call wireless carriers attached to the phone number. "They can sometimes pinpoint it better than we can," she said, calling it helpful though there is a time delay.

Another problem is that carriers only know whom the phone is registered to. Sometimes, a parent has paid for and registered their child’s cellphone, or the caller may be using a phone issued by an employer.

Nevertheless, Powers said, cellphones have real value: First responders are now able to attend car crashes more quickly, and more drunk drivers are being reported.