The fatal flaw at emergency call centers: Can 911 find you?
(WBFF) – “911, what is the address of your emergency?"
"I'm in a car in a lake."
Shanell Anderson, 31, was about to drown. Despite the 911 operator’s best effort, her system couldn’t accurately locate Shanell in time.
Anderson: "Ma'am, I'm losing air very quickly,"
Dispatcher: "Give me the address one more time, it's not working,"
Anderson: "The Fairway!"
Moments later, the cell phone connection was lost as Anderson, trapped in her SUV, sank to the bottom of a Georgia lake.
It’s a situation feared by 911 operators across the country.
Operators like Sherrie White, who became a 911 dispatcher because she says she wanted to save lives.
"It is absolutely infuriating that we can't find this person and help them,” White said. “Because that's what we took this job for--to help the public. And, we can't."
The 911 system uses the technology that relies on the individual cell phone carrier.
Unlike apps on your phone, like Uber, that automatically pinpoint and send information about where you are, 911 computers have to communicate with individual cell phone networks that search for you, using less accurate technology.
Steve Souder runs one of the largest 911 call centers in the U.S., based in Fairfax, Virginia.
He says, "It is really frustrating to understand that someone calling for a pizza, Papa John delivery person or is hailing a cab and the Uber driver has a better, more accurate way of locating the customer or the person flagging the cab than does a 911 call taker."
He agrees to let our sister station in Washington, DC test the cell phone location accuracy for the four largest carriers: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile.
T-Mobile places the call more than a quarter mile away.
Verizon places the call three blocks away.
AT&T actually lands at a transfer center.
Sprint pinpoints her at a Costco a quarter mile away.
Maryland state senator Cheryl Kagan is working to get so- called 'Next Gen' technology up and running in Maryland to fix the pinpoint problems.
"Having been on the cutting edge, we have fallen drastically behind,” Kagan said.
The state's Office of Public Safety wouldn't discuss the problem on camera, but told us 911 systems are run by the counties.
Local officials statewide told us: if a call is placed to 911 tonight on a cell phone-- they can't pinpoint your exact location.
“Next Gen will help address some of that,” Kagan said. “There's still the problem of what hotel room you're in, or what cubicle you're in or what floor of a high rise."
Admiral Jamie Barnett is the former FCC Chief of Public Safety and Homeland Security. He's been fighting to get cell phone companies to use more accurate technology for years.
"The problem is that those technologies cost money,” Barnett says.
Federal rules don't require cell phone carriers to use specific technology - even though it is well-documented that certain technology is far superior to what the carriers currently use.
Barnett adds, “We need better technology to make sure we can find exactly where you are."