In most cases, that doesn’t make a difference. Most people who call 911 know where they are, and can communicate it clearly to the operator. But every so often callers don’t know where they’re located, or they’re in a situation where they can’t communicate their location out loud, forcing operators to spend precious seconds or minutes figuring out where they are.
“It’s costing you time,” says Barnett, now the director of Find Me 911, an organization set up to lobby the FCC to adapt better location technology. “You go there and you say: Where is this person? I can’t see them; I can’t find them.”
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During the first half of the 20th century, if you wanted to make an emergency call, it was routed through a switchboard operator, waiting its turn to be placed alongside all the ordinary calls to relatives or the neighborhood pharmacy. Once the emergency call went through, the operator would connect the caller to the police or fire station nearest to their home—a cumbersome job that could take considerable time. (New York City alone currently has 77 different police precincts.)
It wasn’t until 1957 that the National Association of Fire Chiefs first suggested a separate number to speed up emergency-response times. Around a decade later, the Federal Communications Commission finally created our current system. Throughout the 1970s, specialized call centers cropped up across the county to dispatch first responders to emergencies.
The system worked so well because it was so simple—with just two numbers and three digits, “911” was easy to remember and dial—and because it could precisely locate callers based on their phone numbers.
Tracing a landline call to an exact location doesn’t require complex technology. The 911 call centers have databases of every landline phone number in their area, and the street address associated with each one. In the earlier days of 911, locating a caller was as easy as drawing up a document and running a basic search.
Cellphones made the process much more complicated. Like landlines, each cellphone has an owner and a billing address—but that address tells you virtually nothing about where the call is coming from. In the early ‘90s, with more and more emergency calls coming in from cellphones, it became clear than 911 call centers were going to need advanced, location-based technology to find people.
In 1992, the FCC created a committee to figure out a solution. But the committee members failed to predict just how ubiquitous cellphones would become. Brian Fontes, the CEO of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), says that most of the early cellphone-tracking methods—most of which are still in use today—focused on locating people outside, with the assumption that indoor calls would come from a landline.
According to a recent report from the National Center for Health Statistics, 45 percent of U.S. households now have cellphones but not landlines, a number that’s grown steadily for more than a decade. But emergency-call centers haven’t kept pace. “There’s been a lot of advances in technology, but it hasn't advanced to the point where they can actually determine where someone is,” says Fontes.