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911 KNOWLEDGE: Channel 13’s Dan Winters investigates how "smart" your smart phone is in an emergency

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People are getting rid of landlines in order to save money.  Could it cost them precious time in a home emergency?

Kate Florer is a stay-at-home mother.  Her husband, Elliott, is a police officer.  Both are concerned with safety and one question, in particular.  "If you call from your cell phone," Kate asked, "can 911 find you?"  Working in law enforcement, Elliott has a pretty good hunch, but good luck getting a straight answer.  Kate said, "I called Ankeny dispatch and they gave me mixed answers.  I had a friend call Urbandale dispatch and they gave (my friend) mixed answers."

Last month, Channel 13 News aired a story about a four-year-old boy who called 911 from a cell phone to get help for his mother who was unconscious.  The dispatcher had trouble locating the boy's exact address.  So, the Florers brought their question to Channel 13 and we asked 28-year dispatch veteran Patty King.  She answers emergency calls at Westcom, which is the 911 center for West Des Moines, Clive, and Urbandale.

Of cell phone calls, King said, "Lots of times, if (the computer) doesn't give us (a location) right on the address, it gives it just a house or so away."  She added, "The addressing has come so far. Though it's not perfect, it's pretty dog-gone reliable."  King said that she would be willing to get rid of her personal landline.  So we put it to the test, and by most standards, the system failed.

Two consecutive cell phone calls put the location 14 blocks east and eight blocks west of where the calls originated.  King said, "I was surprised. I thought it would track closer than that.  It would make you question whether you wanted to get rid of your landline. I mean, three or four blocks off is a long ways if you've got an emergency."

The Florers said that our experiment made them feel validated.  They said, "Now, we need to get a landline for real."

Through the process, we learned that even if your cell phone's global positioning locator is turned on, it requires a call from the dispatchers to the cell phone carrier in order to get that information.  However, a landline inside a home gives an instant, precise location.  It would have gotten help to that four-year-old boy and his mother a lot sooner.  King said, "But, you've got to realize, landlines have their problems too."

For example, take Urbandale Public Schools.  If someone dials 911 from any phone at Urbandale High School or from any school in the district, the call shows up as having originated from the district headquarters.  If, for some reason, the person at the high school can't talk, first responders would be sent to a location miles away from where the emergency is.

On the other hand, when a 911 call originates out of the new Aviva Headquarters in West Des Moines, the dispatch computer pinpoints the location down to the cubicle.

Elliott raised the question, "If you don't know where you are, or for some reason your life's in danger and you can't talk or for some reason you pass out, you have a seizure and can't talk. How are they gonna know where you are?"

The answer for ultimate safety is to have both.  In a car or outdoors, cell phones save lives.  King said, "They're getting better all the time."  But, for peace of mind at home where life and death can hinge on speed and accuracy, Kate said, "We're going to bite the bullet and pay the $30 a month to get a landline."