Most calls to 911 centers are wireless, relying on towers to track locations


When Syracuse firefighters initially responded to a call for help around 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, they couldn’t find the source of the call.

“Our first dispatches from the 911 center said there was a language barrier, sent us to the 500 block of Pond Street for this fire. When companies arrived in that area, they didn’t find any fire. No signs of anything,” said Syracuse Deputy Fire Chief Barry Lasky. “One of the district chiefs responding to the scene heard a smoke detector about a block away and stopped there, where he found a woman outside saying that there was a fire inside her apartment.”

Onondaga County officials says within ten seconds of the fire department’s arrival on Pond Street, dispatchers were also able to narrow down the location through cell towers.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, most calls to 911 centers today are from wireless phones and that percentage is growing.

“A Lot more people are getting rid of their landlines at home and just using the cell phones now. I’d say about 75 percent of our calls are now wireless based,” says Kevin Pooley, the Oswego County Director of Emergency Communications.

Since cell phones are mobile, when a wireless call comes in for Pooley’s dispatchers – addresses are not automatically attached to the number.

First, the system tries to connect to the closest cell tower in the area for a general location.

“Could be a two mile circle all the way around that tower site, or a three mile circle all the way around it,” Pooley explains.

He says it often takes another 7 to 25 seconds to find more towers. If three are found, the system can zone in on an address nearby, by testing the cell phone’s signal strength to determine the most likely location between the three towers.

To see just how it works, NewsChannel 9 reporter Tammy Palmer made a cell phone call inside Oswego County’s 911 center.

The closest tower quickly connected, offering a clue with coordinates.

“This is showing now – 110 Churchill Road is the actual tower site. We’re at 39 Churchill Road,” explains E-911 Operations Coordinator Paul VanDyke. “It’s fairly close to where we are. It’s not exactly where we are, but it is fairly close.”>

When location services on the phone were later turned off, the coordinates took a bit longer to appear as VanDyke manually prompted the search for a second and third tower to activate triangulation. Then, within seconds, the phone’s approximate location popped up on a map at the dispatcher’s desk. Again, it was close, but not exact.

“It’ll do a triangulation and get a lot more specific. But, within 50 to 300 meters is what is, on average, the closest location that 911 can get to you,” Pooley says.

The FCC is pushing cell providers to constantly strength technology to improve location services.

To help dispatchers, Pooley says people should not attempt to disable GPS/location services on cell phones.

Given a choice, families should use land lines because they immediately provide addresses.

Customers who use VOIP services in which calls are made via the internet, typically through a modem offered by cable carriers in bundles with phone service, should be sure to call the provider to make sure the correct physical address is in the system. Pooley says sometimes people who move don’t get updated. Also, customers who use P.O. boxes for billing need a physical address in the system for 911.

Finally, no one should assume they’ll be able to provide a clear address in an emergency.

“It’s very easy to get numbers confused, not give the right address, you give an old address, things like that. It happens more often than not to people who normally have everything put together,” he warns.

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