Many 911 Systems Can't Find Cell Phone Callers

When Terry Pedigo collapsed on a soccer field, 911 dispatchers couldn't locate where the calls for help originated because they came from cell phones. It is a fatal flaw that exists in many 911 systems across the country.

Three years ago, 45-year-old Pedigo was playing soccer at River Grove Park near Houston, when he had a heart attack and collapsed.

People on the sidelines quickly grabbed their cell phones and called 911, but their efforts were fruitless. Pedigo didn't make it.

"There's not a day that goes by that we don't think about him and miss him," said Debbie Pedigo, Terry's widow. Adding to the sense of loss is a sense of frustration, because she believes her husband might be alive today if it were not for a gap in the 911 system safety net.

When people call 911 from regular telephones, the emergency operator can pinpoint the address they are calling from. But for those who call for help from a cell phone, the chances of being found go down dramatically. That's because most parts of the country have not yet adopted available technology called enhanced 911, which allows a person calling form a cell phone to be located.

The operator who responded to the call about Pedigo was unable to figure out the location of the emergency, according to tapes of the calls that were obtained by the TV show Inside Edition.

Here is a transcript.

Caller: Get a g---damn ambulance moving.

Operator: Sir, they have to know where to send it sir, we have to know where.

Caller: So what do you want me to do? I don't have an address. It's a park, it's River Grove Park. It doesn't have an address.

Operator: River Boat?

Caller: My God, you guys can't.

Operator: Hold on. Hold on you need to settle down

Caller: I got a guy here, he's dying man.

Though it has since been upgraded, Houston's 911 system at the time could not automatically and precisely locate cell phone callers.

Lost Boys in Boat

The same flaw occurred last month in New York City, where four young men went out in a small rowboat and disappeared on a cold winter night. A cell phone call to 911 could have been their last chance, but it could not be traced.

The boy who called 911 was heard saying "We're on the Long Island Sound," and then, "We're going to die."

But the call is garbled, and police say the operator failed to follow procedure. Still, the 911 system in New York is not enhanced 911, and authorities had no way of knowing where the boys called from. Rescue boats were delayed a full day and the boys have not been found.

"Doesn't matter if these kids made a stupid decision to do something; they still had the right to be saved," said Virginia Badillo, one of the boy's mothers.

A Complicated Location System

Identifying and locating cell phone callers is more complicated than finding regular callers. It requires 911 centers, local phone companies and cell phone carriers each to install expensive new equipment.

Since Pedigo's death, the Harris County 911 center that serves the Houston area has overhauled its 911 technology. Operators there can now trace cell phone callers to within a few hundred feet or closer.

"We take the search out of search and rescue," said John Melcher, who runs 911 in the Houston area, and heads an organization of safety officials across the country. "And that's really what the technology's about."

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