Cell phones can hinder emergency response times

Cell phones make it easy to reach 911 but difficult for first responders

Every day, the La Crosse County Emergency Dispatch Center gets more than 70 911 calls, and nearly 80 percent of those are made from cellphones. That’s because the 911 system was created with land lines in mind. When you call from a landline it will transmit your location instantly over a hard-wired connection. With cellphones, it’s much more complicated because 911 centers don’t automatically connect with a phone’s GPS.

When paramedic Paul Schecklman gets called out to an emergency, he gets there as quickly as possible, because it can mean the difference between life and death.

“There have definitely been instances where time completely changes the outcome patients have,” Schecklman said.

However, no matter how fast Schecklman would like to get there he said technology can slow him down.

“In a day where Facebook and Twitter, and every other thing on your cellphone knows exactly where you are, I think they can make steps to making a 911 call mirror those things,” Schecklman said.

“Fifty-six percent of our wireless calls, we get location on but the location isn’t always going to be accurate,” Jay Loeffler, the emergency services coordinator for La Crosse County, said.

When a person dials 911 from a cellphone the call goes into something called “Phase 1” at the dispatch center.

“Phase 1 indicates what tower it came from and also what the telephone is,” Loeffler said.

But it won’t give the callers location, so “phase two” is activated. Dispatchers will transmit a digital request to the wireless network asking for the phone’s location, but the network usually can’t pinpoint the exact spot of the caller.

“It could be anywhere from 50 to 300 meters away,” Loeffler said. “Realistically when we get that location information it’s a starting point for where to look for someone.”

Schecklman said he wishes cellphones could deliver as much speed and accuracy as he tries to gives on the job.

“If you have to back track or search around for someone it just kinds of adds a lot stress and extra time to the situation,” Schecklman said.

The FCC is working with cellphone carries on rules that will require towers to deliver accurate location data for 40 percent of cell calls by 2017, and 80 percent of calls by 2021.

La Crosse County’s ability to track a cellphone location was up 5 percent in 2014 from 2013.