Cellular dead zones make emergency communication difficult

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COLUMBIA - These days it's almost rare to see someone NOT attached to a cell phone, but dead zones can be problematic, especially in emergency situations.

"I use my phone a lot," Karen McKee said. "I use it for my email, for the Internet, Facebook, I text message people a lot and I have a lot of phone calls."

Although her phone is the primary source for communication,  McKee said there are times when her service can be spotty.

"I don't get coverage in between Kansas City and Columbia and it's like two hours, " McKee said. "It's totally dead until I reach the Katy Trail."

Alexandria Koopman said she has similar problems.

"I have good service as long as I'm in big cities," Koopman said. "We were just at the state park and I was in and out of service, in and out of service and it drained my battery so fast."

Joe Piper, deputy director of Joint Communications, said there's no way to tell exactly where the dead zones in Columbia are.

"There may be areas in the community where coverage could be better," Piper said. "But I'm not aware of any specific underrepresented areas." 

KOMU 8 News reached out to four major cell providers in the area to see where there is coverage is in Columbia. 

Based on the coverage map, individuals service is going to vary depending on the area. More rural areas and spaces with open land tend to have a weaker signal. 

First responders say problems arise when there's an emergency.

Martina Pounds, Captain for the Boone County Fire Protection District, said 911 should be reachable even in weak zones.

Pounds said that doesn't mean the closest 911 center will respond, especially near county borders.

"For example, the next dispatch center to us is in Mexico, Missouri and if someone's on the line between Audrain County and Boone County that might go to Mexico, Missouri which might not be the closest but that's just where the signal goes."

Piper said, if a 911 call is received and the caller is disconnected, the dispatch system calls them back. If they are unable to reach the caller, and there is enough information available to locate them, the center dispatches a law enforcement officer to investigate the call. 

911 calls in remote areas gained national attention after several instances where people were not able to reach 911 during an emergency, resulting in death. A similar situation happened in Fulton in October 2014 when a man was hiking. His call was disconnected and law enforcement was not able to locate him for several hours. 

According to CellReception.com, there are 10 AT&T towers in Columbia, three Verizon Wireless towers, one Sprint tower and one T-Mobile Tower. 

KOMU 8 reached out to the City of Columbia to see if there were any plans to build any new cell towers in the area. They were not available for a comment.