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CBS12 Investigates a fatal flaw while calling 911 from your cell phone

Nearly every day, there are roughly 650,000 emergency calls to 9-1-1 all assuming help will be there in a matter of minutes.

But, CBS12 Investigates found that’s not always the case. Far too many callers are not located quickly or at all.

Desperate for help, 31-year-old Shanell Anderson used her cell phone to call 9-1-1.

Anderson knew her exact location, but despite the 9-1-1 operator's best efforts, the system couldn't accurately locate Anderson in time.

Moments later, the cell phone connection was lost. Anderson trapped in her SUV, sank to the bottom of a Georgia lake.

PINPOINTING YOUR LOCATION

It's a situation all too real for 9-1-1 operators across the country.

Mario Bryant oversees the Boynton Beach 9-1-1 Communications Center, "We spend half the time on a call just confirming where the caller is."

Bryant told us all too often operators can't pinpoint the caller's exact location.

In fact, a shockingly high number of wireless 9-1-1 calls are not even close, instead, showing up initially as the physical address of the tower.

"I mean it's very frustrating when you're on the phone saying, ‘Help is on the way,’ and you have somebody saying, ‘OK but where are they?" said Daniel Koenig, 9-1-1 Planning Coordinator for Palm Beach County.

Dispatch is forced to stop and ask the cell phone carriers to correctly identify the callers' location.

The reply can take seconds, minutes, or never come at all.

That's because the 9-1-1 system uses technology that relies on the individual cell phone carrier. Unlike apps on your phone, like Uber, that automatically pinpoint and send your location, 9-1-1 computers have to communicate with individual cell phone networks that search for you, using less accurate technology.

"We do have the IP based routing that will allow this information, but we need the phone carriers to send it to us," added Koenig.

THE TEST

Koenig agreed to let us test the cell phone location accuracy for the four largest carriers; Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint.

We made the calls to 9-1-1 from within the call center.

First we called using a Verizon cell phone.

Bryant answered and tried to pinpoint our location.

"I have a generic area. It is saying north of Gateway but if you really where you say you are, that may not be accurate," said Bryant.

Verizon placed us about a mile from the call center.

In a case like this, Bryant said, "I would keep working to get you to give me a business or location in this particular case."

It took about 5 minutes for Verizon to locate our location on the first call - crucial time 9-1-1 operators don't have to waste.

Next, we called using AT&T.

Despite AT&T's tower being farther away, it took 53 seconds for the operator to pinpoint our location.

At first the T-Mobile call showed us at their tower. Eventually, it placed us a quarter mile away from where we were.

Bryant said again in this instance he would ask more questions, "I would keep quizzing you, to see what was near you."

Finally, we called using a Sprint phone.

It came the closest, eventually pinpointing us out in front of the building.

"I would say this is around the entrance to the parking lot," said Bryant pointing to the map. "It is pretty close. If we are sending responding units. I would say, ‘Hey, we are sending units. Flag them down."

TECHNOLOGY

"The technology exists to make sure that doesn't happen. Why wouldn't we use it?" said Admiral Jamie Barnett, former FCC Chief of Public Safety & Homeland Security.

Barnett said the results of our test came as no surprise.

"I think the carriers like to think 'Well, this is good enough,' and the answer is it's not good enough. We need better technology to make sure we can find exactly where you are," said Barnett.

So, who is keeping the providers accountable?

"There's no one out there testing it. There's no one out there saying you know or are these being met and unfortunately you know in 9-1-1, it only takes one bad call," Koenig Said.

New FCC regulations will go into effect by 2021. The wireless carriers will have to provide the locations of 80 percent of all cell phone callers faster and more accurately.

Four years too late for what experts say are tens of thousands of victims 9-1-1 won't find.

Palm Beach County conducts their own testing. Below, are their latest results:

Palm Beach County also kept track of the number of calls they received in 2016:



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