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Photo Credit: Michael Dorausch via Flickr.
Photo Credit: Michael Dorausch via Flickr.

Think your smartphone can always tell someone where you are? Data from 911 dispatch centers say otherwise.

A new analysis of 911 records finds that call data alone can’t identify the location for up to a quarter of wireless emergency calls in the Puget Sound area. And, nationally, quickly placing the location “ranges wildly from as low as 10 percent to as high as 95 percent.”

The reports, from KING-TV Seattle and Gannett, show that in King County, Thurston County and elsewhere in the Puget Sound area, “the physical location of anywhere from 15 to 25 percent of wireless phone calls cannot be traced during an emergency.” And that can be an issue, since three-quarters of 911 calls are said to originate from mobile phones.

This may come as a surprise to many smartphone owners who are used to getting everything from driving directions to alerts of nearby breaking news from their apps. The problem, KING-TV reports, is that “the 911 system cannot quickly access that data,” relying instead on whatever location data the wireless carriers are able to relay. GPS specifics aren’t always, or immediately, provided.

One solution? A Next Generation 911 system, including the one Washington State is building, that could also accept text messages from callers “and may enable a caller to send photographs or streaming video a 911 center.”

The KING-TV story has specific examples of the problem.


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