Darlene Dukes struggled to speak as she called 911 from her cellphone. She could barely tell the operator her address: 602 Wales Drive.
The operator, trying to understand Dukes, sent an ambulance to Wells Street in Atlanta— 28 miles from Dukes' apartment in Johns Creek, a suburb north of the city.
Paramedics finally reached the stricken woman almost an hour after her call on Aug. 2, 2008. They were too late. Forty minutes after arriving at the hospital, Dukes, 39, the mother of two boys, died of a blood clot in her lungs.
That cellphone call was critical. If Dukes had called from a land-line telephone, her address would have immediately popped up on the 911 operator's screen, leaving no room for confusion.
Dukes' case is like many others across the nation. For the millions of Americans giving up their land lines in favor of cellphones, dialing 911 may no longer mean a quick response. It can lead to misrouted calls, delayed information about the location of the caller and, most important, a slower emergency response.
"Lots of people are dying each year," says David Aylward, director of Comcare Emergency Response Alliance, a non-profit advocacy group. "We're sending in responders where they don't know information about the person they are responding to. We're sending them in looking for someone when they should know where they are exactly."
911 built for land lines
The nation's 911 emergency response system, built in 1967, was based on the expectation that calls for help would come from land-line telephones, says Paul Linnee, a consultant for emergency communications. Now, with more people using cellphones exclusively, calls that bounce from tower to tower pose significant challenges.
Cellphone users "almost assume that they are going to be located — and that's not a fair assumption," says Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), which focuses on 911 emergency communications.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 20.2% of U.S. households had only wireless phones in 2008, up almost 3 percentage points from 2007. Today, the Federal Communications Commission estimates a third of 911 calls are from cellphones.
Linnee says even the most advanced 911 systems do not allow a dispatcher to get a specific street address for a wireless call. About 93% of the nation's 911 centers have technology that lets the dispatcher immediately see the caller's phone number and the location of the cell tower that picks up the call. But the dispatcher must request the caller's GPS coordinates from the wireless carrier that operates the tower. This process can take several seconds and may yield a location as far as 300 meters from the caller, not much help in a high-rise apartment.
The FCC requires that carriers be able to locate a caller, within 300 meters, for 95% of their calls in each state. A proposal pending before the FCC calls for carriers to be able to locate 95% of their calls in each county.
Cellphone calls are commonly misrouted to the wrong 911 center, a problem not addressed by the FCC. In Jefferson County, N.Y., just across Lake Ontario from Canada, Joseph Plummer, director of the county's fire and emergency management, says dispatchers occasionally get calls from Canada.
Unlike land-line calls, which are sent to the 911 center for their jurisdiction, wireless calls can hit the wrong tower, further slowing the response.
Misrouting also happens in metropolitan areas where multiple jurisdictions are bunched together. In Cook County, Ill., there are more than 100 different 911 centers, Linnee says, making it extremely common for calls to hit towers outside of the proper jurisdiction.
Problems run deeper still in areas where wireless carriers and 911 centers have not adopted the latest technologies. According to NENA, 7% of the nation's 911 centers are able to obtain only the location of the tower that picks up the wireless call and are not equipped to request GPS coordinates for the caller's location. More than 100 counties still have only this so-called Basic 911 service. Cellphone callers in these counties are unlikely to summon emergency services unless they can orally tell the operator where they are.
Improvements are coming, however. This month, a 911 center in Waterloo, Iowa, serving Black Hawk County, became the first in the country with the capacity to receive text messages.
Last week, NENA announced the formation of a consortium of emergency response organizations and wireless experts to secure federal stimulus funds to upgrade 911 operations by using broadband technology. Patrick Halley, director of government affairs for NENA, says the goal is to allow callers to send video and text messages to 911 centers.
In the year since Dukes' death, the town where she lived, Johns Creek, has partnered with the neighboring town of Sandy Springs to install a joint 911 center, says Noah Reiter, assistant city manager for Sandy Springs. The new $3.5 million system, partly inspired by Dukes' death, will launch Sept. 1.