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Can You Find Me Now? Cell Phones Hard For 911 To Trace

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Published:   |   Updated: May 22, 2013 at 02:59 PM

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TAMPA -

Almost any new cell phone can use GPS data to pinpoint your location to the corner where you stand. Many even offer turn-by-turn directions down the street.

Call 911 on the same phone, however, and 25 percent of the time police may only know you're in an area within six miles of the nearest cellular tower. That's roughly the distance from Hyde Park to Busch Gardens.

Low-cost, prepaid phones that many people buy expressly for emergency use are among the worst at locating callers in an emergency, say officials with 911 centers in Tampa, Hillsborough County and Plant City.

"What people see on TV, shows like 'CSI' always pinpointing people in real time, that is not reality; I wish it was," said Barbara Roberts, a 911 operator with the Tampa Police Department. In her experience answering a hundred 911 calls a day, even the best cell phone carriers sometimes fail to provide a location for callers.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans are dropping their easy-to-locate home phones in favor of a cellular-only lifestyle. That's one reason more than 60 percent of calls to local 911 centers now come from cellular phones, a portion that's steadily rising.

Despite all the multimedia features of modern cell phones and the hundreds of millions of dollars customers pay monthly to fund better 911 systems, police say dangerous gaps persist in the safety net that people assume cell phones provide.

"Verizon phones are good a lot of the time; so are Alltel," Roberts said. "But the others get worse. MetroPCS phones are notorious, just notorious, for giving us nothing about where people are. We just get a blank screen."

Sometimes, there's not even caller ID information, she said. "So if the line goes dead, I can't even call you back. What would I dial?"

Verizon Wireless and AT&T officials did not respond to questions about the topic of locating 911 callers. MetroPCS officials said a third-party contractor handles their 911 calls.

Such gaps in the system have led to a series of rare but tragic cases where police could hear a person who had called 911 during a kidnapping or slaying, but there was no information about their location. On top of glitches, bureaucracy can add to delays.

"We've had cellular companies require us to send them a fax on police letterhead, or a subpoena, before they'll even start work to find their own customers in a life-and-limb situation," said Darrell Wilson, a captain with the Plant City Police Department. "That can take an hour or more to turn around. And you better hope you're not moving if you're calling 911 then."

Best Case/Worst Case

In a best-case scenario, police can pinpoint a cell phone caller within a few dozen yards in a matter of seconds. The caller's latitude and longitude coordinates pop up on an operator's computer screen. This happens primarily with newer phones equipped with GPS chips. Generally, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and Alltel use this method with their newest phones.

"There are times I can fix callers down to the doorway where they stand," said Brad Herron, director of operations for the communications bureau at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

Other service providers, such as AT&T and T-Mobile, use a triangulation method among several cell phone towers to locate callers. Each method has drawbacks: GPS doesn't work well inside buildings; triangulation does better inside, but tends to be less accurate.

Sometimes the technology works wonders.

In October, a Kernersville, N.C., woman was kidnapped and put in a car trunk. She dialed 911 on her phone, and police found her.

Other times, the system fails.

This month, Jennifer Johnson, a 31-year-old Tampa mother, was kidnapped. She dialed 911 and got out two words - "Help me." But police say there was no location data on the call. Police later found her body in a vacant house in Lakeland. An investigation continues into the case.

In January, kidnapping victim Denise Amber Lee of Sarasota managed to call 911 while tied up in her abductor's car. Authorities logged the call but were unable to locate her in time.

Her father, Mark Lee, said, "It boggles my mind how you can have a GPS on your dashboard that tells you turn by turn how to find the local pizza shop, but they can't use that technology to find a cell phone of someone being murdered."

How Does That Happen?

Thorny technical problems stand in the way.

All 911 centers in Hillsborough County have equipment capable of receiving location data from cellular carriers. But the carriers first have to collect that location data from the caller's phone and send it to police.

Sometimes, callers use phones more than a year old that aren't equipped with GPS chips. Other times, the phone can't receive GPS signals because it's in a basement, a parking garage or trunk. In those cases, a 911 operator may only see which tower is connecting the call.

In rural areas or along freeways, cellular towers can be spread out in a "string of pearls" series, meaning there may be only one tower nearby, making it harder to pinpoint a location.

Local law enforcement offices don't tally how many calls come in with partial data. But in their estimation, about one call in four lacks a precise location.

The likely culprits are older phones or obstructed callers, said Tim Lorello, chief marketing officer for TeleCommunication Systems Inc., which provides 911 locating services to MetroPCS and many other carriers.

"When you're trying to find someone in the trunk of a car, that's really, really tough," he said. Lorello said he would not buy a prepaid cell phone for emergency purposes.

Sometimes It's A Rocky Road

Police have backup procedures, but they take time.

They can call cellular phone companies for help. Sprint, for instance, averages 1,500 calls a month from police. Capt. Hugh Miller at the Tampa Police Department complimented Sprint and Verizon Wireless for cooperating in such cases. Other companies he could not commend.

"Sometimes it just depends on how skilled the guy is you're talking to there," Miller said. "And he says he has to go fill out the right form somewhere."

That process can take an hour or more, Miller said.

Brad Herron, a director of operations at Hillsborough County's communications center, singled out prepaid cell phones as the least reliable.

"When you buy a phone, you really have to think what happens if you need that phone in an emergency," he said. "Prepaids just don't have much information to help us find you."

In their defense, at least one cellular carrier said they can only provide location data their technology produces.

"Some calls on these handsets originate under very adverse conditions, such as indoor calls, calls in urban environments, etc.," said Kristin Wallace, a spokeswoman for Sprint. In those cases, location data can range above 200 meters.

What's Next?

Federal rules require a level of accuracy for finding 911 callers.

Companies that use triangulation must fix callers within 100 meters for 67 percent of calls (about the area of a football field); 300 meters for 95 percent of calls. Companies using GPS must locate them within 50 meters for 67 percent of calls; 150 meters for 95 percent of calls.

But the rules allow carriers to average call performance across many states. Federal officials want better.

"Providing enhanced 911 capability in Manhattan does not help first responders in Buffalo," said Robert Kenny, a spokesman with the Federal Communications Commission.

As of Jan. 1, 2007, prepaid phone companies had to sell handsets capable of providing location data. But they don't have to replace phones that customers bought and stored for emergencies before that date.

Prepaid phones also suffer because they may not have a customer's address attached, so police don't even have a home site to start an investigation.

On the law enforcement side, 911 centers benefit from millions of dollars in financing collected through monthly fees tacked onto phone bills. Florida collected $90 million in monthly "enhanced 911" fees from telephone customers to fund better 911 systems at law enforcement and emergency rescue centers.

The FCC is putting more pressure on cellular carriers to improve location technology, including ways to locate people within buildings or on specific floors of apartments or office towers.

Several victims' advocacy groups are starting to push the issue, appearing on TV talk shows to tell their stories.

Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida sponsored, and President George W. Bush signed, legislation in July to further modernize the system and study how well cellular carriers locate callers.

"This is certainly something we're looking at closely," said Christopher Day, legislative counsel for Nelson. "We plan on legislation going into next year to fill in some of these gaps."

IT'S AN EMERGENCY

Tips for helping police and rescue workers find you in an emergency:

*Don't hang up. When you call 911, the longer you keep the line open, the better the chance emergency personnel will find you.

*Tell operators your location as soon as possible. Be specific.

*Ask your cellular provider what method they use to locate 911 calls on your phone.

*Consider replacing phones more than 2 years old. Newer phones have GPS chips that can tell 911 operators your location.

*If you live in a rural area, pick a phone with GPS rather than triangulation as its location method. Rural areas have fewer towers, which makes it harder to fix your position.

MIXED RESULTS

Emergency 911 systems have a mixed record on locating cellular phone callers. Here are a handful of cases across the nation.

APRIL 2007: Police cannot locate a Dayton, Ohio, woman calling from the trunk of an abductor's car. Her phone is not equipped with a GPS chip, police say.

JULY 2007: Madison, Wis., police use GPS tracking to help locate the body of a missing student.

JANUARY 2008: Denise Amber Lee of Sarasota is abducted and calls 911 on her cell phone while tied up in her abductor's car. Authorities logged the call but were unable to locate her.

FEBRUARY: A man who had crashed his vehicle into a creek was located by Omaha, Neb., police using the GPS signal generated by his cell phone.

APRIL: A University of Wisconsin-Madison student is found dead in her apartment. It's later revealed the Dane County 911 center received a hang-up call from her cell phone but failed to follow up.

OCTOBER: A Kernersville, N.C., woman uses her cell phone to call 911 from the trunk of her kidnapper's car. Police used GPS data from the phone to locate her.

DECEMBER: Jennifer Johnson, a 31-year-old mother, is found slain in a vacant house in Lakeland. She called 911 from the trunk of her car, but police couldn't locate her. Police say she only got out two words: "Help me."

Tribune research by Michael Messano; Source: Tribune wires


Reporter Richard Mullins can be reached at (813) 259-7919.

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