Why calling 911 on a cell phone might not be the quickest way to get help
Historically, 911 dispatchers have been unable to track the locations of callers on cell phones as accurately as those calling from landlines. This is surprising, considering how readily your phone shares GPS information with everything from pizza shops to electric scooters. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has enacted location-sharing rules for cellular carriers, but they’re rolling out in increments and they allow an unsettling amount of leeway.
Currently, cellular carriers must abide by the FCC’s Enhanced 911 (E911) rules, which have increasingly strict requirements. At present, they require nationwide carriers to provide latitude and longitude location-tracking capabilities to 911 dispatchers that are accurate within 50-300 meters, depending on the type of technology the carrier uses. This location information must be available for at least 50% of wireless 911 calls, a requirement which increases to 70% in 2020.
That could mean up to a 984-foot permissible radius, which entails a difficult search in high-density areas. Furthermore, the FCC rules allow up to six minutes to determine your location before the carrier is considered in violation. Altogether, this represents a huge volume of calls with no or slow-to-populate location data. It’s easy to see how this set of requirements could fall short when time is of the essence, as it has in Georgia, Florida and elsewhere.
The good news? Recent updates to the Android and iPhone operating systems have dramatically improved smartphones’ ability to automatically share exact locations with emergency dispatchers, but this technology doesn’t cover non-smart phones or ones that are out of date. Even with these improvements, the nearest cell tower might be in a different city or county, which requires 911 operators to reach across borders or city lines to send first responders.
One more potential issue: What happens if you call 911 from a cell phone and hang up? If there’s a reason to believe there’s danger, 911 dispatchers say that they will request your phone number from the carrier and attempt to return your call to follow up. If they can’t retrieve your number, they are likely to send an officer to your estimated location, which may or not be accurate.
Tips for calling 911 on a cell phone
If a landline is available instead, use it.
Provide your exact location details and type of assistance needed as soon as you pick up the phone.
Speak clearly and try to stay calm; environmental factors can make it hard to hear accurately on mobile.
Calling from VoIP lines? Again, share your location.
VoIP, which stands for Voice over Internet Protocol, refers to calling services that are hosted over the internet. They’re popular substitutes for more expensive traditional landlines, and they’re also common in offices and other flexible workplaces. (For reference, Vonage, RingCentral and Nextiva are a few leading providers.)
Since VoIP runs calls through the internet, 911 operators have difficulty tracing the location of the call. The FCC requires VoIP providers to support 911 calls, but cautions that it’s up to the user to provide their accurate home location information to the VoIP service, to keep that info updated after a move, and that there can be problems with connecting to the right dispatchers when calling over VoIP.
Tips for calling 911 over VoIP
Keep your address information up-to-date with your VoIP provider in case of an emergency.
Call 911 with another method if it’s available.
If you do need to call 911 via VoIP, provide your precise location information immediately.
How to make an emergency call on a smartphone without unlocking it
What if you’re in a crisis, and the closest phone is someone else’s? You don’t need to know their password or use their fingerprint to make a 911 call. Here’s how to do it:
Tap the home button, which launches the lock screen that asks for a passcode or PIN
In the bottom lower left of the screen, tap “Emergency”
Any cell phone with a signal can call 911, even if it’s not activated.
Any operational mobile phone with a signal can call 911, even if it’s not associated with any carrier or network. That means you can use defunct, disconnected or back-up phones to place an emergency call, as long as you’re in a location covered by cell towers.
Note: It also means that those inactive hand-me-down phones your kids play with could accidentally call emergency services, so be mindful . And if you call 911 on a phone that’s not on a contract, there won’t be a phone number associated with it, so the 911 operator won’t be able to call you back if you get disconnected.
In Some Places, You Can Text 911
What if you’re in an emergency where you can’t draw attention to yourself, can’t hear, or can’t speak? In those cases, placing a voice call might be out of the question and you might be able to text 911 instead, depending on whether or not the 911 center nearest you at the time supports the service.
In every state, there are certain metropolitan areas or counties that support Text-to-911 service, but coverage is far from universal. The FCC updates its list of 911 centers that support the service every month, but it doesn’t contain data about the precise geographic coverage of each 911 center. Contact your wireless provider or local police department to determine if your area is covered.
To use text to 911, simply text as you normally would with “911” as the recipient. Start with your exact location and the type of help required. If you attempt a 911 text and it’s unsupported, you will receive a bounce-back notifying you of the failure.
Be advised that even in areas where 911 texts are supported, it’s still recommended to place a voice call if you are able. The voice service is quicker, more reliable and preferred by both 911 centers and the FCC.
Heads Up: Smart Speakers Can’t Call 911
You can rely on Amazon Alexa or Google Home for all kinds of things, but calling 911 isn’t one of them. There are regulatory and technical hurdles that will likely prevent that from happening anytime soon. On their own, smart speakers can’t provide a callback number or location services, and their users don’t pay for 911 fees to support the service (take a close look at your phone bill – there’s a 911 fee there somewhere).
There’s an exception: If you have a landline or VoIP phone service, it’s possible to link your phone line with the voice assistant by adding a device and/or service to your smart home setup.
- For Amazon Echo ecosystems, the Echo Connect performs this function. It turns your home phone into an Alexa-compatible device.
- Google Home households might consider the Ooma Telo, which is a Google Assistant-compatible VoIP phone device. If you subscribe to Ooma’s calling service, you can link it to Google Home and use it to call 911.
- On the other hand, iPhones and most late model Androids do support 911 calling through their built-in voice assistants. If you have a smartphone within earshot, say “Hey Siri (or Google), call 911” to start the call.