Why 911 can’t always find you, but Uber can

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, MO (KPLR) – 911 may not always be able to find you due to your carrier, a Fox 2 News investigation has learned.

Fox 2 News visited the highly respected St. Louis County 911, where staff is armed with the latest technology while operating enhanced emergency response.

“Under (current FCC regulations) they’re only required to give you that location 66 percent of the time and only within a football field,” said David Lucas, a 911 specialist.

A call from inside the county’s 911 call center was traced back to a cellphone tower approximately 1.3 miles away.

Operators know the first hit (also known as a “rebid”) is not always precise.

“So he’s asking for a better location,” Lucas said. “So it reaches back out, finds your latitude and longitude, and brings it back. That’s a 30 second process.”

The second attempt was successful.

“Now, I actually show you at Olendorf Park, which is at 1150 Hannah road,” the operator said.

He found our news crew; that was using Verizon as the carrier.

The results change as our crew switched cell service providers.

“Just like any service, different carriers provide different levels of service based on where they are and also on the volume,” Lucas said.

A call from a Sprint phone brought an almost immediate location.

“Right now, it’s hitting off of one of the towers in the parking lot here, so I would know that you would be in the building,” the operator said.

Something unexpected happens with our news crew’s second call using a Verizon phone.

After a rebid, the operator said, “It’s showing me that you’re at 6112 Big Bend. So this phone carrier is not as accurate as the others.”

After three tries at a rebid—taking 81 total seconds—the operator retrieved another possible address.

“And now it’s showing you at 285 Crescent,” the operator said.

That address is on a different street than the 911 center where we first called; nearly three football fields away. It would be a large area to search when seconds count.

One of the most publicized cases involving 911 failing to find someone was last year in Georgia. A caller told 911 the nearby street names after driving her car into a lake, but her call went to a different county, causing enough of a delay that she drowned.

The FCC says improving location data from wireless providers “could save about 10,000 lives each year,” so the government’s making demands. Five years from now, cellphone companies will have to pinpoint you to an area half the size of a football field – not every time, but in four out of every five calls. However, our news crew can sit in the middle of Creve Coeur Lake Park and order an Uber to pick us up at a precise spot, already pinpointed on my phone for me. Seven minutes later, an Uber pulled right up to us without me having to say a word.

When asked for an explanation, our 911 specialist said Uber simply utilizes better technology at the moment.

“Those applications are using technology we don’t have in the 911 centers yet,” Lucas said. “A lot of that is because we’ve been around so long, you know, when you don’t have an installed base it’s quite easy to use a new application, but when you have to bring along the old infrastructure and the way of doing things, it’s a slower migration. And it’s expensive and not everyone has the funds.”

Lucas explained that the results might change if you travel.

“If you go to another place in the country, it would be opposite. Verizon would be first and AT&T would be second. So it depends on where you live and where you place that call from,” he said.

Lucas added that the results get worse when dealing with lesser known service providers.

“Just like any service, different carriers provide different levels of service depending on where you are and also on the volume,” he said.

Missouri may fall farther behind because it's one of only nine states without a 911 coordinator.

R.D. Porter used to be Missouri’s coordinator.

“Right now, they don’t have that champion at the state or at the legislature, and that’s a huge issue,” he said.

Porter survived both Democratic and Republican administrations before his position ended when Governor Jay Nixon took office in 2008.

“I don’t know what the argument is not to have one,” Porter said.

Porter said the danger is in 911 centers buying the wrong technology.

“It happens quite often. Our directors are very smart and good at what they do, but they’re not contract specialists,” he said. “They’re not technologists and it’s difficult to understand how this stuff works.”

Porter told Fox 2 News about a 911 center in Missouri that recently spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on new equipment, only to realize it didn’t have what it needed. He would not name the specific center.

Porter has helped 911 centers get millions in grant money. His former colleague in state government gave him a gold star for his efforts.

“I got him $3.4 million in grant money. Everybody said, ‘You can’t do that.’ Well, don’t tell me I can’t do something,” he said.

Without a statewide coordinator, each 911 office is on its own.

The governor’s office did not answer questions why Gov. Jay Nixon has not appointed a 911 coordinator. A spokesman referred us to the Department of Public Safety. A DPS spokesman did not answer that question but said, “In Missouri, 911 service funding is handled at the local level. (Missouri voters have twice rejected a statewide 911 fee on wireless phones.)”

Here’s a breakdown of our four test calls from inside the St. Louis County 911 Communications Center:

Test #1: an iPhone with Verizon
• After 32 seconds and a “rebid,” the 911 operator placed us in the building.

Test #2: an HTC phone with Sprint
• An operator placed me in the park outside of the building within 11 seconds.
• After a “rebid,” he placed me in the building after 46 seconds.

Test #3: iPhone with Verizon
• An operator placed me near a cell phone tower 1.3 miles away.
• After a rebid, an operator placed me at the same cell phone tower.
• After a third try and 81 seconds, the operator placed me at an address on a different street, nearly three football fields away.

Test #4: iPhone with AT&T
• An operator placed me near a cell phone tower 1.3 miles away.
• In 30 seconds and after a “rebid,” the 911 operator placed me at an address on a different street, nearly three football fields away.