TV6 Investigates: Problems with 911 wireless call routing

CLINTON COUNTY, Iowa (KWQC) -- On a daily basis, dispatchers face a high-pressure job.

911 emergency (Pixabay, License Link )

Many times, their job is made more difficult when wireless 911 calls are routed to the wrong dispatch center. This happens when a cellphone is routed based on the cell tower handling the call.

In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission looked to examine ways to improve 911 call routing, and reduce ’misrouted' wireless calls, saying it has reason to believe misrouting occurs frequently, and occasionally has deadly consequences.

TV6 Investigates found that issue is still happening right here in the Quad Cities area.

In June, one QCA woman says she experienced this on a day she constantly thinks about.

Caller Melanee Lee witnessed a fatal crash in rural Clinton County, and dialed 911 on her cell phone, only to be misrouted.

In 911 audio obtained by TV6, you can hear dispatchers from Scott County transfer their call to the intended dispatch, Clinton County.

You can hear Lee say, in the minutes-long dispatch call, “Why is there nobody here?”

The dispatcher from Clinton County, who received the transferred call then says, “Because it went to the wrong agency.”

The woman went on to say, “This isn’t plotting in my county. Hang on just a second. I think we have the information backwards.”

Lee says, “You just kind of, I guess, felt a little alone. They’re supposed to be sending help and nobody’s coming and there’s so much going on around you.”

Once the call was transferred, dispatchers were having a difficult time locating Lee’s exact location.

“That was a big frustration, too. She had no idea where I was,” Lee says.

The FCC says these instances of misrouting happen frequently. Often times the cell tower may not be within miles, or even in the same state, as the person dialing 911 from their cellphone.

Eric Dau, Director of Clinton County Communications says, “The biggest issue we have is when a person calls 911 from a cell phone, the cell phone picks up the closest tower. Well, the closest tower may not be in the county that the person’s located in.”

Dau says the difficulty in locating a caller’s exact location is also due to the tower.

He explains it does not use exact GPS like certain phone apps, which presents an added challenge on top of an already ticking clock.

“There are definitely changes that can be made,” he says, “It’s just a matter of the cellphone carriers spending the money to make those changes.”

Dau says dispatchers are well trained in the geography of their area, but sometimes that isn’t enough — especially if a caller doesn’t know his or her exact location.

For now, apps like RapidSOS are helping Clinton County, who recently began using the software, help locate their caller’s approximate location.

Dau explains, “Even though that person may be confused on that location, we put the phone into RapidSOS and we’re able to get a return on that phone number, at least we’ll have an immediate location from that.”

Dave Donovan, Coordinator of Scott County Emergency Management Agency says Scott County plans to roll out RapidSOS during its next software upgrade.

Donovan says, “It’s probably gonna help. I mean, we’re always looking for tools to aid us in that location if it’s a pin on a map, you know, and that’s what RapidSOS is.”

Until the 911 routing system becomes more reliable, dispatch centers are taking it upon themselves to ensure quick response times, and utilizing GPS location apps like RapidSOS.

Lee says she hopes an alternative to relying on cell towers will soon be available nationwide.

“I would expect that would be my lifeline. I would want to pick up my phone and say I need help.” She asks, “How are they not able to locate you?”

She tells TV6, “That’s just what dumbfounds me with today’s technology.”