Updating Technology in Charlottesville to Improve Response to 911 Calls

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Emergency Communications Center (FILE IMAGE) Emergency Communications Center (FILE IMAGE)
Tom Hanson Tom Hanson
David Werner David Werner

More people are choosing to leave landlines behind in favor of using only cell phones, but emergency service centers say that can sometimes slow down their response times.

With a cell phone, you can be almost anywhere and make a call to 911. That's one of the reasons emergency calls centers are having a hard time managing those calls.

“There's about 260,000 911 calls made daily. About 73 percent of those now across the nation are wireless calls or cellular calls,” said Albemarle County Emergency Communications Center Director Tom Hanson.

With landlines, when you dial 911 it sends an exact physical address. But, a cell phone can be anywhere, and often is on the move.

“Whenever there is a change in technology, it does create a problem for us,” Hanson said.

Cell phones are great, because of GPS services emergency responders can tell exactly where someone is. The problem comes once first responders are inside the building. A cell phone can tell you what building someone's in but it can't tell you which floor they'll be on.

The Emergency Communications Center takes all calls before units are dispatched to a scene.

“It'll tell them what the call is and where the call is. We're able to acknowledge on the screen that they are responding to the call,” said David Werner with Charlottesville Fire Department.

Technology is evolving. Albemarle County updated its 911 call system just last spring. Emergency Communications Center staff is also trained to work with cell phone companies to trace calls and get a location based off the last cell tower that was pinged by the phone.

“We're not talking about minutes, we're talking about seconds,” said Hanson.

Because of all the updates to wireless technology, the FCC has required cell phone companies to improve the accuracy of location information being transmitted by phones. Companies must transmit any 911 calls regardless of whether a caller is a subscriber to its service, and location information needs to be within 50 to 300 meters.