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11Alive investigation results in nationwide 911 fix

11Alive's investigative team has reported on this problem over the last seven years.

ATLANTA — AT&T has announced it is rolling out what it calls the first nationwide system for location-based routing for 911 calls from cell phones.

It promises a fix to a longstanding problem in which 911 calls are routed through a cell tower rather than based on an individual's phone location - leading, in some cases, to the 911 caller being directed to the wrong 911 center.

11Alive has been reporting on the issue over the last seven years. 

Chief Investigator Brendan Keefe's first reporting focused on the story of Shanell Anderson, who was routed to the wrong call center as she called 911 from her sinking car that had crashed into a pond. First responders were not able to find quickly, and she died several days after the incident.

In his investigation, Keefe found that it was Anderson's location that cost her her life. The pond she accidentally drove into was located on the wrong side of a map, which caused her emergency call to be directed to a tower in the next county. The 911 center's maps stopped at the county line, and the address wasn't on dispatcher's maps. That meant the dispatcher couldn't see the address on her screen in order to send help and possibly save Anderson's life.

In another instance, several 911 callers were put on hold and transferred around to different call centers after a plane crashed in Atlanta.

Deborah Bounds’ 911 call hit a cell tower across the Chattahooche River. As a result, her call and at least two others were answered by Cobb County 911.

It took an average of 23 extra seconds to transfer the three emergency callers who reached Cobb County 911, but the second 911 center to which they were transferred was also the wrong jurisdiction.

The crash occurred in the city of Atlanta, but multiple emergency callers either reached Fulton County 911 directly or were transferred there by Cobb County 911.

One caller reached Atlanta 911, only to be erroneously transferred to Fulton County 911, and then back to Atlanta 911. Each time, the transferred callers had to tell dispatchers where they were and describe what had happened. 

In some cases, the callers had to tell their story three times to three different dispatchers.

AT&T's new location-based routing promises to finally fix all that. It's already been activated in 16 states, and will go live nationwide by the end of next month.

T-Mobile has a similar program in place, but only for some areas of the country, while Verizon has said it's going to continue to use the old tower-based method for routing 911 calls.

"Through this new "Locate Before Route" feature from Intrado, AT&T can quickly and more accurately identify where a wireless 9-1-1 call is coming from using device GPS and hybrid information to route the call to the correct 9-1-1 call center, also known as public safety answering point or PSAP," AT&T said in a release.

The company says the feature will allow a device to be located and routed within 50 meters of its location. 

"Prior to this launch, wireless 9-1-1 calls were routed based on the location of cell towers, which can cover up to a 10-mile radius," AT&T said. "This can cause delays in emergency response, especially when a call is made within PSAP border areas where state, county or city boundaries overlap."

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