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Dangerous Flaws With 911 Mobile Calls

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The new Haven app allows for more efficient emergency calling and information transmission.

It’s a tragic story highlighting many 911 systems’ inadequacies: As water began pouring into her sinking SUV, Shanell Anderson tried the doors. They wouldn’t budge. So, she immediately dialed 911 on her cell phone, telling the operator where she was. Repeatedly. As a newspaper delivery person, Shanell knew exactly where she was, so finding and rescuing her should have been a snap.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

Her call was routed through the nearest cell phone tower, but automatically bounced to a nearby county’s 911 system. So the dispatcher didn’t have those streets on her map. She couldn’t pinpoint Shanell’s position before the call terminated.

As reported by USA Today, “In the agonizing, final seconds of the call, Anderson’s words are muffled by the sounds of pond water. The dispatcher asks for the address again, then utters, ‘I lost her.’”

Digital technology allows us to communicate seamlessly, locally, globally, and instantly — calling or video chatting on-demand with people blocks or continents away; ordering products with a simple click and tracking packages directly to the doorstep; getting the news and more, 24/7. Competent, reliable, digital communications technology is at our beck and call around the clock. But sometimes, as Shanell Anderson’s tragic story demonstrates, it’s not always — especially when we need it the most.

The problem: 911 was built in the 1960s with an infrastructure meant for landlines, not mobile phones. As a consequence, all of the GPS and additional smart features of your smartphone are not utilized when you call 911. The aging infrastructure needs a serious upgrade as more than 70% of calls to 911 today are from mobile phones.

Even as far back as 1996, 911 problems were painfully evident. A Los Angeles Times story from then reads in part, “Imagine it. Home invaders breaking down your front door. A potential rapist climbing through the bedroom window. You dial 911 and your attempt to cry out for help becomes one of the one-third of emergency calls in Los Angeles that are not answered within the city's 10-second target time …”

“Voters were led to believe that this problem was solved when they approved Proposition M, a $235-million 1992 bond measure to upgrade the city's 911 system. Yet after nearly four years, little of substance has been done. Los Angeles residents broke records last year in having to abandon emergency calls to the system. Through September, nearly 200,000 callers to 911 gave up after they were put on hold.

Fast-forward 30 years to 2016, and 911 system challenges and problems continue to persist:

For example, in Rockville, Maryland, a Washington, D.C. suburb, officials are looking at why the 911 system failed for two hours, during which time two people died. “Officials said … that the 911 system was out from about 11:10 p.m. Sunday to 1:10 a.m. Monday. Callers received only a busy signal. During the outage, crews responded to two medical emergency calls, involving fatalities that included a 91-year-old Olney woman and 40-year-old Marlon Somarriba from Rockville … Somarriba's family members (said) that they dialed 911 repeatedly for over an hour before finally calling the Rockville police directly.”

Considering our increased reliance on and use of smartphones for all sorts of personal and business communication and computing, one glaring, core issue with 911 is that smartphone users can’t text 911 in almost 95% of America. So, texting 911 is likely impossible in many dangerous situations (home invasion, domestic violence) or when it’s hard to communicate (hearing loss, heart attack, asthma). Shanell Anderson knew exactly where she was. What if she had been able to text 911? What if her correct GPS location was automatically sent to the dispatcher?

Fortunately, a number of new technologies have emerged that are able to solve many of the shortcomings of 911. With the “SafeTrek — Hold Until Safe” app, you hold your finger on your phone in a dark or dangerous setting until you feel safe. If you remove your finger without entering your PIN, a SafeTrek assistant will call the police for you and communicate your GPS location to the police. It’s an ingenious way to keep you safer during that worrisome late night walk home through the woods or alley.

Haven is a leading-edge app developed by RapidSOS. When you trigger a 911 call with Haven, the type of emergency, location and relevant medical/demographic data automatically transmit directly to the correct 911 dispatch center. Haven also enables you to text to 911 from anywhere in the U.S., and alerts your emergency contacts immediately after a 911 call is made. The app also allows calls to 911 on behalf of loved ones, automatically transmitting their location and personal information to the correct 911 center closest to them. Haven technology was developed in cooperation with 911 professionals and government agencies. It elevates the reliability of communicating with 911 to the level of service it should and must provide in emergency situations. And as part of the AARP Freebie program, AARP readers can get:

Free Haven for one year*

*There are no strings attached (no credit card required) and AARP receives no compensation for passing on information about these offers to you.

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