Investigation exposes critical limitations of 911 emergency call system and cellphones

PITTSBURGH — A Target 11 investigation exposed potentially critical limitations of the 911 emergency system when using a cellphone.

Eighty percent of 911 calls are made from cell phones, but Rick Earle discovered that important information such as your cell phone number and location may not be relayed to 911 dispatchers.

Family in Mourning

This information came to light after Target 11 began looking into the death of a woman who managed to call 911 on her cellphone but couldn’t talk.

Anthony Wells of West Mifflin works full time in McKees Rocks. During the day, he would talk to his wife several times but on this day, he couldn’t reach her and he started to worry.

On his way home from work, Anthony Wells tried repeatedly to reach his wife, Gena. When he arrived home, he found her unconscious on the couch.

“I started yelling for my wife and there was no response. She didn’t move. I knew something was wrong and I’m yelling at my daughter to call 911, call 911, call 911. It was a little chaotic. It was crazy,” he said.

Paramedics arrived but it was too late for his 47-year-old wife who had a history of health problems, including asthma and a heart condition. She had a pacemaker put in about five years ago.

“I don’t know how many days later after this we was still numb, and my daughter had even asked. She was upset. She’s still upset. She says how come she didn’t call anybody which was the question,” he said.

When looking through his wife’s cellphone, Wells noticed that she called 911. He said his heart froze.

It was a 55 second call made to 911 at 11:49 a.m., but no one ever responded. Wells reached out to 911 but said he didn’t get any answers.

“I just want to know what happened. I mean, apparently, the system failed as far as I’m concerned, whether it’s the 911. I don’t know if it’s the system itself or human error, but something failed,” Wells said.

Cell Phones and 911 Emergency Calls

Wells reached out to Earle, who took his concerns to the head of the Allegheny County 911 Center.

“It was not your average 911 call. The early review of the incident was that it was an open line,” said Matt Brown, director of Emergency Services for Allegheny County.

After looking into the incident, Brown discovered that the call was made from a Verizon cell phone but connected through a T-Mobile tower. Because the call used another carrier’s tower, Brown said there was no number or location data included when the call came into the 911 center. With no one talking on the other end, Brown said dispatchers had nothing to go on.

“When that happens, there’s no information with it, so with no one talking on the line, and no information, there’s nowhere to go,” Brown said.

We reached out to both T-Mobile and Verizon. Both carries expressed condolences to the Wells family.

T-Mobile told Target 11 that when a wireless customer calls 911, the device attempts to deliver the call over that carrier’s network. When it’s not available, the call will connect with another available network as required by federal law. When that occurs, enhanced calling features, including location data. may not be conveyed.

Verizon issued a similar statement and said the location information may not transmit because the device isn’t configured for that provider.

Brown said the call is then assigned a random number and transferred to the 911 center.

“We call them pseudo numbers or a fake phone number, but it’s registered to their network so they can process it through their network and get it to us, the 911 center,” said Gary Thomas, assistant director of Emergency Services for Allegheny County.

Both Thomas and Brown told Target 11 that if the call had reached a Verizon tower, critical information including the cell number and probably the location would have been included.

Currently, the FCC requires that 70% of cellphone calls to 911 must include location data, but that data can provide a location up to 1,000 feet.

“We would have had the information that was the carrier, and you’ve got an account with them so all the information can be there. It could still be difficult to zero down on locations, but we’ve got technology to try and battle that,” said Brown.

That technology is called RAPIDSOS and it allows dispatchers to pinpoint a cell phone location.

“We punch in a phone number and gives us you know exactly where they are,” said Thomas.

Thomas and Brown said if they had a location for Gina Wells, it would have been standard operating procedure to send an emergency responder.

Improvements to 911 Emergency Calls

Thomas told Target 11 that improvements to wireless 911 calls are on the way as soon as next year.

It’s called NEXTGEN 911 and it allows cellphone callers to send images, video and data. It will also provide a location even if a call jumps carriers like Gina Wells' did.

For Anthony Wells and his family, the improvements didn’t come soon enough.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It just hurts so bad. My grandkids come over and they want to know where their grandmother is?  What do you tell them?  She’s not here, why?” said Wells.

Emergency responders suggest that anyone with serious health concerns have access to a landline or a medical alert button; that way dispatchers will know their exact location.