Location during emergency calls not accurate or required

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BOONE COUNTY- The first question dispatchers at Boone County Joint Communications asks their hundreds of callers each day is, "What is the location of your emergency."

For some, it might be simple to answer the question and immediately receive help. For others, such as those using cellphones, the location information may not be so easy to provide, and that can send dispatchers on a hunt to find an accurate location for emergency responders.

Dispatchers and emergency responders hope to save more lives by improving the accuracy in location of calls coming from cellphones.

Under Find Me 911, the FCC is proposing changes over the next five years that would improve location accuracy from indoor calls.

The FCC said new technology exists to improve accuracy, and it wants to require cellphone carriers to provide accurate location information for 80% of calls within a certain number of meters.

Boone County Battalion Chief Gale Blomenkamp said there actually was a decline in location accuracy with cellphone calls for several years.

Back when the majority of calls came from landline phones, all personal information, including a name and address, were instantly available for joint communications.

As the use of cellphones increased, technology changed to maintain accuracy. Ten years ago, phase two cellphones used a GPS type of tracking system, which could narrow a caller's location within a three-meter radius.

Inconsistent carrier standards and changes in 911 systems created a situation in which many calls provide only a 50-meter radius for indoor cellphone calls.

Regardless of technology used, in order to transmit location information, a call must hit three phone towers to find the location on a map.

Every structure in Boone County has an address on it, and if a cellphone is close enough to a building in Boone County, dispatchers can begin to narrow the location of the call using the information provided by the phone towers.

"Really the biggest thing is that we have accurate information," said Blomenkamp.

Location inaccuracies also delay responders when the caller cannot provide their own location information.

"The hardest part is to narrow down where that location might be if they're not sure of it," said Brian Maydwell, Boone County Public Safety Joint Communications Operations Manager.

A recent example in which location information accuracy could have benefited Boone County is in October, when dispatchers responded to a call of a man who fell from a bluff at Three Creeks Wildlife Conservation area.

Dispatchers lost contact with the caller, and began pinging his cellphone to find his location. The cellphone pings were inconsistent throughout the night. Search teams ended up looking for the man for six hours. Missouri State Highway Patrol found the man ten miles away in Callaway County and later pronounced him dead.

"Should that phone been able to pinpoint within three meters of where he was and then an elevation change of where he was, who knows what the outcome could have been," Blomenkamp said.