Few people give much thought to the seconds that pass every day; they lapse in the length of a breath or bite of a sandwich.
But in emergencies, seconds matter, potentially adding up to the difference between life and death.
Cell phones are a life line tucked into about everyone’s pocket, but despite accounting for the majority of 911 calls, they can actually slow emergency response times. Jason Barbour, Johnston County’s 911 director, said that, on average, help to callers using cell phones is about 30 seconds behind calls from landlines.
Across the country, 911 dispatchers answer every call the same way: “What’s the location of your emergency?”
“It doesn’t matter how bad someone is hurt, or how big the fire is, if we don’t know where to send help, that’s a huge problem,” Barbour said.
Cell phones have played a significant role in improving emergency response. In decades past, if someone crashed his car in rural Johnston, he would have to make it to the nearest house or hope someone happened by the wreck. But now, most people have cell phones, which offer up location information to 911 dispatchers. The problem, Barbour said, is that the locatoin information isn’t instantaneous and it’s not always accurate.
“There’s no delay for people who say they’re calling from 123 Main St.; they know where they are, and we can get to them,” Barbour said. “The delay comes when someone has no idea where they are, and we have to rely on the information we get from their cell phones.”
Emergency responders are likely to locate outdoor callers faster and with greater accuracy, because those calls use GPS technology. Indoor cell calls, meanwhile, bounce their signal off the nearest tower.
Federal standards vary for the two types of calls, with GPS-located calls required to be within 50 meters 67 percent of the time. The requirement for indoor calls is twice the distance at the same success rate.
Landlines, on the other hand, tell dispatchers the exact location of a call the second it comes through.
“Most of the calls are coming from indoors as the county’s population shifts more and more away from having a traditional phone,” Barbour said. “The longer we stay on the phone, the better the plot gets. But we’re still pushing for better technologies to make it faster and more accurate; we’re pushing the FCC for greater indoor accuracy.”
In the last five years, cell phones have replaced landlines as the main source for 911 calls., Barbour said. Last year, more than 70 percent of 911 calls in Johnston County came from a cell phone.
Barbour once served as president of the National Emergency Number Association and has testified before Congress and the Federal Communications Commission. Last year, he spoke at an FCC workshop and noted the challenge dispatchers face when fielding calls from people are aren’t sure where they are.
“Perception is reality,” Barbour said. said. “Main Street America perceives that when they dial 911, we know where they’re located.”
Clayton Police Chief Wayne Bridges said the only information his officers receive comes from the 911 dispatchers.
“Calls can be electronically dispatched, but normally they go over the radio – that typically gives us everything we need,” he said. “If an officer has any questions, he’ll query the dispatcher – such as a more exact location or if any weapons are involved. The dispatchers really do a great job.”
Smithfield Police Capt. R.K. Powell said his officers have ended up at the wrong door before, though never at a loss of life.
“It usually gets us pretty close,” he said of the technology. “There have been a few times where we’ve not been able to find the cell phone but usually end up a couple doors down. It’s never been an issue for us.”
So far in Johnston County, Barbour said, a delay locating a caller hasn’t led to any worsening situations.
“We’re fortunate,” he said.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson