WGN Investigates puts Chicago’s 911 system to the test

CHICAGO -- When you dial 911 in an emergency, do dispatchers know where you are? If you call from a cell phone, the answer is often “no.”

“We have to explain to [callers] that we need to verify their address because with cell phones, we don’t get an exact address,” said Chicago 911 dispatch trainer Sherrie Y. Wright.

Most callers assume 911 operators receive address information automatically when they call. That’s the case with landline phones but not cellular calls. WGN Investigates hit the streets with Chicago Office of Emergency Management & Communications officials to demonstrate the problem. In only 2 of our 5 test calls were dispatchers able to narrow down the location of wireless call to within a single block. In one call, 911 dispatchers didn’t receive any location information. “That can happen,” said Wright.

Why can Uber and other apps pinpoint your location when 911 can’t? That’s because apps use GPS information you agree to provide and transmit. 911 relies on cellular carriers to report a caller’s location. The carriers do that by determining the location of the cell tower with which the phone connects. It means 911 dispatchers can initially receive an address range of several blocks. 911 can “re-ping” the phone which usually narrows it down to a single block, but often doesn’t provide a specific street address to send help.

Right now, the FCC has an agreement with the big wireless carriers: They only need to transmit specific street addresses 40-percent of the time. That number is slated to increase to 80% of calls by the year 2021. Representatives of the trade group that represent major wireless carriers did not respond to repeated inquiries from WGN Investigates.

“On a cell phone we’re at the mercy of the information that’s given to us by the cellular call,” said Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications manager Zachary Williams.

That’s despite the fact wireless phone users in Illinois are paying as much $3.90 per month in 911 surcharges. WGN Investigates has learned not all of that money is staying in the state’s 911 fund. In recent years Illinois lawmakers diverted $7.5 million in 911 fees to shore up the state’s general revenue fund.

Private firms have developed apps and other software that will relay the specific location of wireless callers, but it comes with additional cost.

Chicago 911 officials say the best way to help first responders to reach you in an emergency is to quickly and clearly state the location from which you’re calling.

An update on the child heard calling 911 for help for his mom in the video version of this story: It took Chicago 911 dispatchers just under 10 minutes to determine the location of the mother and child and send help. The Chicago Fire Department gave the boy an award for his actions that day.