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WAAY 31 I-Team Investigation: Pinpointing 911 cell calls

WAAY 31's I-Team Investigation found that many cell phone calls to 911 centers are difficult to locate. So, we worked to find out what you should do during an emergency.

Posted: Jul. 3, 2018 10:02 AM
Updated: Jul. 3, 2018 10:49 AM

A WAAY 31 I-Team investigation looked into why 911 operators don't automatically know the exact location of some wireless callers.


The emergency call system has its roots in north Alabama with the first 911 call ever originating in Haleyville in 1968.

Decades later, operators don’t always know the location when cell callers phone in an emergency.

A WAAY 31 viewer had that experience happen to her in Huntsville after she stared down the barrel of a gun.

WAAY 31 started doing some digging into the limitations of the system and how it’s improving.

Providence Village is the last place she thought this would happen. "I was leaving work in the back parking lot,” Diane Hilpert told WAAY 31.

Hilpert says time stood still.

“I didn’t know what to do,” she told us. “I was trying to do just what he wanted me to do.”

A criminal demanded her car. “He had a gun,” Hilpert said.

Diane Hilpert

But the robber settled for her purse.

“Finally, he grabbed my purse and he just ran off – thankfully,” she said.

Hilpert called 911.

She thought with today’s technology they’d automatically know where to send help.

“I asked her if anyone was on their way,” Hilpert explained. “And she says, ‘Ma’am I need a physical address.’ And I couldn’t find one.”

Hilpert called less than a mile from the Huntsville-Madison County 911 center.

WAAY 31 asked. But, no one there called us back to explain how the 911 location process works or wanted to answer our questions when I showed up.

So we took our questions to Marshall County.

Dispatcher at Marshall County 9-1-1 Center

“It has gotten better obviously,” Jason Nix told WAAY 31. “Not 100%. But, it has obviously gotten better.”

Nix is the operations manager for the Marshall County 911 Center.

Jason Nix, Marshall County 9-1-1

Nix knows pinpointing cell phone callers has been a work in progress. And he says the work is paying off.

“It used to be very difficult to know where a cell phone was,” Nix told us. “Then we got to where we got an address, but the address we got was the actual cell tower that the cell phone was hitting off of.”

Marshall County’s is one of about 6,500 emergency call centers across the US.

The National Emergency Number Association told WAAY 31 these centers take about 240-million 911 calls every year.

Much of the system was built decades ago for land lines. Now the association estimates as many as 80 percent of 911 calls come from mobile phones.

And the Federal Communications Commission says improving location services for 911 could save as many as 10,000 lives a year.

Today, locating cell phone callers is getting better. Apple and Google have joined the effort to help by combining data on your device with cell tower information to better pinpoint a 911 caller’s location. But the work is far from finished.

“The best advice we can give is to try to always know your location,” Nix said.

In April, at the Waffle House shooting in Nashville, location information did not go through to 911 dispatchers. The caller didn’t know the street address. So, at first, police went to another Waffle House on the same street.

Nix says callers can help 911 dispatchers save time which may save lives.

“Look at the cross streets,” Nix advised. “Because if we get a call and somebody says they’re on Highway 431, that’s a very long road.”

One example is along Highway 431 in Marshall County. There are three McDonald’s restaurants in three different cities.

If an out-of-town caller tells dispatchers there’s a medical emergency at McDonald’s, it could be happening in Boaz, Albertville or Guntersville.

But, getting the street address could be a life saver.

For example, in Albertville, dispatchers would know to send help to 7375 Highway 431.

McDonald's on Highway 431 in Albertville

And Nix points out even when dispatchers are trying to figure out where you are, first responders are already on the move.

“The majority of time, when we’re talking to someone on the telephone, someone else is dispatching the call,” Nix told us. “So, just because we’re asking you a lot of questions does not mean that help’s not on the way.”

And that fast response matters.

“20, 25 seconds can save a life," Nix said.

Diane Hilpert saw firsthand that 911 callers are reaching out for help on one of the worst days of their lives. “It was pretty scary,” she said.

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