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Lost on the Line: Why 911 is broken

Your cell phone knows exactly where you are, but 911 doesn't get a victim's location in a shockingly high number of emergencies. The 11alive investigators' Brendan Keefe found out that the problem is getting worse – and costing lives.

Editor's Note: This series of stories originally ran in 2015. Click here for the 2016 updates.

ALPHARETTA, Ga. -- Rescuers did everything they could to save 31-year-old Shanell Anderson from a sinking car.

They just couldn't find her for 20 minutes.

Anderson also did everything she could to save her own life after she accidentally drove into a residential retaining pond 100 yards from the line between Fulton and Cherokee counties.

In her hand she held what she thought was her lifeline: a cell phone. She called 9-1-1 as water filled the SUV, spending her last moments of consciousness just trying to tell 9-1-1 dispatchers where she was.

A supervisor for a newspaper delivery team, Anderson was driving a route for an employee who called out sick that morning. It was 4:00 a.m. a few days after Christmas when Anderson took a right turn in the dark after exiting a gated community. She thought she was turning onto Batesville Road, but she ended up in one of the two ponds that flanked the entrance to the neighborhood.

Anderson tried the doors. They wouldn't budge. Even a few inches of water outside a car when there's none inside will put hundreds of pounds of pressure on the doors. They're impossible to open until the water level equalizes inside and out. With nothing to break the windows, Anderson relied entirely on her cell phone and her firm but surprisingly calm voice to save her life.

Fortunately, she knew her exact location. The Fairway Road at Batesville. Delivering newspapers, she even knew the zip code: 30188.

Alpharetta 9-1-1 answered the call. For the next minute and 38 seconds, Anderson repeated the intersection and zip code. The dispatcher kept asking her to repeat it. "Give me the address one more time. It's not working," the dispatcher told the woman trapped in the sinking car.

Anderson spelled out the name of the street. She repeated the zip code. Again and again, she told dispatchers her precise location. The dispatcher replied, "Batesville at The Fairway? I don't have that."

In the agonizing final moments of the call you can hear either the phone or Anderson dip below the water, her words muffled by the sounds of the pond filling the interior of the car. The dispatcher asks for the address one more time, and then utters the words, "I lost her."

The line went dead.


Why didn't the dispatcher have that address? Because Shanell Anderson was sinking into a pond in the next county. Her call to 9-1-1 was picked up by a cell tower in Fulton County, but she was trapped in Cherokee County.

Wireless 9-1-1 calls reach the wrong call centers so often, dispatchers have dedicated buttons to transfer victims to neighboring departments.

Cherokee County firefighters immediately recognized the address, but only after Alpharetta dispatchers spent several minutes figuring out that Anderson's call came from Cherokee County.

Rescuers spotted the still-burning headlights under the surface of the pond. A firefighter jumped in and pulled Anderson's lifeless body out of the completely submerged SUV. Paramedics were able to restart her heart, and Anderson clung to life for another week and a half in a coma before her organs failed.

Shanell Anderson died in a hospital, but her fight for life ended inside a car at the bottom of a pond while 9-1-1 and rescuers were still trying to find her.

"If the phone had automatically routed to the correct jurisdiction, this very well may have had a different outcome," said Carl Hall, Chief of Technology at Alpharetta's Public Safety Department. Chief Hall oversees one of the most advanced 9-1-1 centers in the nation, accredited in the top two percent, and equipped with the latest gear.

Hall said, "the address of that tower determines which 9-1-1 center that call goes to. It's not based on the location of the telephone. It's the physical address of the tower, not the physical address of the phone."

Adding to the delay, Alpharetta 9-1-1 follows the industry standard of using proprietary maps. The Geographic Information System, or GIS, is a hyper-accurate mapping system with several overlays, integrated with the computer aided dispatch system. The system's map displays the nearest fire truck, hydrant, power poles, even underground utilities.

The problem with the GIS map is that it stops at the county line.

"She told 911 where she was exactly," said Jacquene Curlee, Shanell's mother. "How many people even know where they are when they're calling 911? And for them still not to be able to locate her is insane!"

Try typing "Batesville at The Fairway" into Google Maps without using the zip code. The precise intersection will be displayed in seconds. Alpharetta 9-1-1 has access to Google Maps, but dispatchers at other centers told the 11Alive Investigators they're discouraged from using internet-based maps because they're not connected to the computer-aided dispatch system. It requires opening a web browser, taking the dispatcher's attention off other critical screens.

A proprietary map not extending beyond the county border was only one of three major problems with wireless 9-1-1 that sealed Shanell Anderson's fate. Those three critical failures are built into a wireless 9-1-1 system designed nearly two decades ago.

Old fashioned land line telephones deliver the caller's address within three seconds. The FCC estimates more than 70 percent of all 9-1-1 calls now come from mobile devices. In more than half of all American homes, a cell phone is the only phone.

The first failure is that the cell tower's address, not the victim's location, determines which 9-1-1 center answers the call. The second failure is the mapping system that doesn't extend beyond the call center's jurist diction.

The third and most critical failure is that a shockingly high number of wireless 9-1-1 calls don't display the location of the cell phone.

"There are times when it doesn't come up at all," said Chief Hall at Alpharetta's 9-1-1 center. "Every day we receive calls where we get a tower address and that's it," he added.

How bad is the problem? Alpharetta doesn't keep track of the number of calls that come in without an address or coordinates. Neither does Atlanta's 9-1-1 center. The State of Georgia doesn't track those statistics. Even though the Federal Communications Commission is supposed to enforce the 1996 regulations that require 95% of GPS enabled phones to report their location, the FCC doesn't get those stats from all of Georgia's 9-1-1 centers.

In the states that do track those statistics, call centers are seeing a "shockingly low" number of wireless 9-1-1 calls returning a "dispatchable address."

In 2013, California reported a "significant decrease" in location data from cell phones at its 9-1-1 centers, calling it a "serious public safety problem." Fewer than half of emergency cell phone calls were telling dispatchers where they were.

In San Francisco, the problem was more serious and has been getting worse year after year. In 2008, the 9-1-1 center there reported 80 percent of 9-1-1 calls returned an address, but by 2012 that statistic had flipped – dispatchers couldn't locate 80 percent of wireless 9-1-1 callers.

What about the FCC regulations requiring 95% of GPS phones to report their location (regulations passed 19 years ago)? For one, the 1996 regulations have been delayed by various FCC actions and waivers so that they will not be fully in force until 2019.

More critically, those regulations did not come with a time component. The industry's reply for nearly two decades has been that the 9-1-1 call didn't last long enough for the network to return an address. Given an infinite amount of time, the phone would have eventually told dispatchers where it was.

FCC rules, updated last week using a proposal written by the top four wireless carriers themselves, finally add a time limit of 30 seconds for wireless carriers to locate a cell phone during a 9-1-1 call, but only for outdoor calls. (Click here to read the FCC news release announcing new rules .PDF document)

The FCC proposed a new rule last year that would have required all cell phones calls to deliver a 'first fix' of the caller's location within 30 seconds. The new rules limit that standard only to outdoor calls. The FCC admits neither it nor the carriers can distinguish whether a call is coming from indoors or out at this time, creating a standard that's virtually impossible to enforce.(EXTRA: Read FCC's "Closing the 911 Location Accuracy Gap" .PDF)

The new FCC regulations give the wireless carriers six more years to locate 80% of all cell phone calls within 50 meters. The rules do not address the persistent issue of wireless calls reaching the wrong 9-1-1 center -- updated standards still rely on the tower's address for deciding which call center gets the call.

"Why is it more important for a 99 cent app or Facebook to know where we are than the 911 operator who answers the call?," asked Shanell's mother Jacquene Curlee. "As something as simple as locating someone in today's society when you have GPS, when you have apps that have locator services, you're telling me 911 doesn't have the capability to locate someone?"

No. It doesn't. That power rests with the cell phone carriers and their networks. The current system does not relay the GPS coordinates from the cell phone when a 9-1-1 call is answered. The dispatchers or their computers must ask the cell phone carriers to find the phone. The reply can take seconds, or minutes, or never come back at all.

"More than likely (Anderson's) phone already possessed that (location) information," said Chief Hall. "The system for 911 doesn't use that information in an automatic mode."

While your digital smartphone is a handheld computer, the 9-1-1 system is still based on analog "twisted copper pair" wires.

Alpharetta's 9-1-1 system is as automated as possible, with the computer asking the wireless carrier for the victim's location every eight seconds. The wireless carrier "pings" the phone and asks it to reply with its location during the 9-1-1 call. If there's no accurate answer, the wireless carrier uses the cell phone signals and two or more towers in an effort to triangulate the phone's location.

All of that back and forth communication trying to divine the caller's location takes time, often longer than the length of the call.

Today you can press a button on your phone, and Uber will send a car to your doorstep. Press another button and your phone will provide turn-by-turn navigation across town or across the nation.

There's no such button for 9-1-1.

Anderson's grieving mother hasn't listened to the 9-1-1 call, but she wants everyone else to hear it. 11Alive did not originally share the 9-1-1 call, but Jacquene Curlee asked The Investigators to let her daughter's last words change the law to possibly save the lives of countless others.

Curlee ended our interview with a warning and a promise: "When you call 911, you need to know where your location is, because at this point in time, your phone is not going to tell them. Gov. Nathan Deal and Georgia legislators, you're going to be hearing from me."

CHAPTER 2: Following the money

To see why our 9-1-1 system is so far behind, you have to follow the money.

Federal records show Georgia took $13.7 million in prepaid wireless fees and didn't spend a penny of it on 9-1-1. And that was just in 2011.

Year after year, millions were deposited into the state's General Fund. Georgia admitted, "no funds were directed toward a specific 9-1-1-related purpose."

To find out why, we went to the State Capitol to ask Georgia's 9-1-1 Advisory Committee.

The 15-member committee, mandated by law back in 1977 to "study and evaluate 9-1-1 service, identify changes necessary to accomplish more effective 9-1-1 across the state, and provide an annual report including proposed 9-1-1 legislation."

But the permanent committee has not met for years – because there isn't a single member currently appointed. A temporary state Senate committee was appointed last year and discovered there was supposed to be a permanent one. The senators have recommended restarting the long-dormant 9-1-1 Advisory Committee.

"All this money is going over to something else instead of saving my daughter," Curlee said. "This money that they've been paying for 9-1-1 is not even being used for 9-1-1!"

Georgia left millions more on the table.

In 2009, the federal government gave out grants totaling more than $41 million to many states, including neighboring Tennessee, Alabama and Florida, all to improve 9-1-1. Georgia did not even apply.


Because there is no statewide 9-1-1 agency. The governor's 9-1-1 Commission discovered that last year, and recommended the creation of a state emergency communications board to "meet current and emerging technological challenges."

The report is sitting on the governor's desk.

"My child called the service that she paid for, only to find out that they couldn't help her," Curlee said. "You're paying for something that doesn't work!"

The 9-1-1 fees from Shanell's prepaid phone didn't go to 9-1-1 until 2012, when Georgia stopped keeping the money.

Gov. Deal's office answered our request for an interview by saying, "There are many fees that go into the general fund. The state has many priorities – all of them important to balance."

So, if there's no state 9-1-1 agency, who's in charge of 9-1-1 in Georgia? Right now, no one. Local governments make their own decisions.

As of 2012, Georgia started allocating most of the 9-1-1 fees to local 9-1-1 centers. Still, more than a dozen counties don't have the ability to locate any cell phones in an emergency.


Cell phones have allowed us to reach 9-1-1 from anywhere, but rescuers can't reach us if they can't find us.

On Dec. 17, Rear Admiral (ret.) David Simpson, the chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau wrote, "We are not where we need to be on location accuracy for wireless 9-1-1 calls. This puts American lives at risk."

Twelve days later, Shanell Anderson spent her last breaths trying to tell 911 where to find her sinking car.

In the letter, FCC acknowledged that "even a few minutes of delay can cost lives."

Mobile phones not only know where they are, they tell us where to go. Apps can use that data from a phone's GPS, compass and barometer and upload it to the internet. But dispatchers don't receive any of this critical information when you dial 911.

Instead of mandating the creation of a 9-1-1 app, the commission approved new standards that show just how bad the problem is.

The FCC is giving the wireless carriers another two years to locate 40 percent of all cell phones calling 9-1-1. In three years they'll have to find half. In five years, 70 percent.

"At six years, they must deliver dispatchable location or x and y coordinates within 50 meters of the caller for 80 percent of all wireless 911 calls," said FCC lawyer Dana Zelman.

Six years from now, 9-1-1 could still be unable to find one out of every five emergency callers.

But 19 years ago, the FCC required wireless carriers to locate 95 percent of GPS- enabled phones in an emergency. Those rules still apply but only to outdoor calls; more than half of cell phone 9-1-1 calls come from indoors.

The FCC had proposed a 30 second limit to locate all wireless 911 calls, but the commission abandoned the 30-second rule for indoor calls, instead adopting new standards written largely by the big cell phone companies. One commissioner wrote it would be "unfair to saddle them with obligations that cannot be met."

"The focus should not be on the cell phone companies who are providing the service, the focus for the FCC should be saving people's lives, like my daughter Shanell," said Jacquene Curlee, Anderson's mother.

The 11Alive investigators discovered that for nearly two decades, the FCC had been using test data – not real 911 calls – to enforce the 1996 rules for finding cell phones.

Within 18 months, Atlanta will be one of six metro areas where real 911 call data will be collected by wireless carriers and forwarded to the 911 centers and the FCC for compliance.


The lifeline that's supposed to connect boaters and rescuers on Lake Lanier sometimes leaves victims "lost on the line."

The call of the lake is often followed by a call to 9-1-1.

Hall County Public Safety Director Marty Nix says it can be challenge to locate callers who identify "Lake Lanier" as the site of their emergency.

"It's an extreme challenge to try to figure out where that caller is calling from," Nix said.

Lake Lanier is 58 square miles of water with boats crisscrossing the invisible borders of five counties.

Each county has its own 911 center. But as the 11Alive Investigators have shown, when callers use their phones to dial for help, 911 dispatchers often can't see the phone's location via GPS.

"It only takes one call not knowing where that caller is and it could be a tragedy," Nix said.

There are no cell towers on Lake Lanier -- they're all on shore, in a nearly 700-mile long ring around the lake. The closest tower is often in the next county, and it's that tower's location – not the phone's -- that determines which of the five counties answers the call.

Sometimes your phone eventually tells 911 your coordinates on the lake. Sometimes you're lost on the line.

"We want to be able to find that caller, and we want to be able to find that victim, and that not be 50 – 60 percent of the time," Nix said. "We want that to be 100 percent of the time."

Several people have died waiting for rescuers to get to them on the water. All five counties share a single detailed map of the lake, including overlays of every buoy and dock number. Unlike others, this map doesn't stop at the county line.

"Our boundaries extend beyond the boundary of Hall County, and what I like to tell people is, there are no boundaries on Lake Lanier," Nix said. "Our goal: we're going to find you."

There's also a single shared frequency for first responders on the lake – when there's a call for help, every jurisdiction switches over to the lake channel, and all rescuers race toward the victims even if they could be in the next county.

The cooperation between the five counties on the lake is unusual. While other counties have different levels of inter-operability, there is still no state oversight, no state agency coordinating 9-1-1 in Georgia.


The FCC and the four largest cellphone carriers say they're doing their best to address the problem. Earlier this month, they worked together on a new federal rule that requires carriers to steadily increase the percentage of cellphone calls to 911 that transmit location data.

The rules, crafted in part by the carriers, call for delivery of location data for 40% of cellphone calls by 2017 and 80% by 2021. In the months spent drafting the rule, the FCC and the companies said a higher success rate is not possible sooner, indicating the current rate is below 40% in many communities.

David Simpson, a retired rear admiral who is now chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, acknowledged the current system is not capable of solving the problem sooner. His agency's mission instead was "to ensure there was a backstop of enforceable regulations that held them accountable for improving the indoor location accuracy challenge."

The four largest cellphone carriers declined to answer reporters' questions. Their trade organization, CTIA The Wireless Association, said that, until recently, the cellphone to 911 location technology being used was meant for outdoor use and simply doesn't work as well indoors.

Scott Bergmann, the group's vice president for regulatory affairs, said the cellphone companies "stepped up" last year to begin an aggressive effort to improve the system using new technologies, including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, to increase the availability and the accuracy of location data from cellphone calls.

"That's huge," the FCC's Simpson said. "We have not had that obligation on the carriers before."

Bergmann also said, however, that "the FCC's timeframes are aggressive." But he said the companies "are hard at work with our public safety partners to improve wireless 911 calls as quickly as possible."

The 11Alive Investigators are committed to holding the powerful accountable and staying on top of this story. Click below for new reports as the story continues to develop:

- Lawmakers focused on 911 money, not safety

- Minnesota takes action after 11Alive 911 report

- Gov. Deal fails to act on 911 commission report

- Where is your 911 money going?

- Cobb, Gwinnett counties sue telephone companies over 911 fees

- Lost on the Line: 911 is still broken -- and it's costing lives

- Lost on the Line: How 911 is still broken

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