911 Dilemma

By: Alice Barr
By: Alice Barr

When we call 911 for emergency reponse, we expect immediate and reliable assistance. But is that what we're getting? Winnebago County responders have been operating with new equipment for just under a month but there could be a flaw in the new technology for cell phone users.
We've all been told that in any emergency, we can rely on dialing 911 for help no matter the time or situation. But early this morning a local man called 911 to report a crime in progress in Machesney Park, just to hear that he had the wrong number.
The problem lies with cell phones. When we place an emergency call from a mobile phone, it's sent to the first available cell phone tower. But if it's busy, your signal jumps to the next available tower and so on.
If we call about a crime outside the city of Rockford and it's picked up by a tower inside city limits, we will be sent to Rockford's 911 call center, which then redirects the call to the Winnebago County Call Center.
Dispatchers say cell phone providers need to get their technology together for the system to be more efficient.
Lieutenant Brad Fitz says, "What will happen with the phase two once its up and fully operational, even though you may go to a cell phone tower that's 5 miles from where you're calling, it will give us the coordinates where you are located at. That will determine what 911 center handles the call."
There is one catch. The new technology will only apply to cell phones that have a GPS chip built in. Mobile phones built more than two years ago generally don't contain that chip and they'll continue tower jumping. The good news is if we call from a landline, none of these problems will happen.
A Rockford Police sergeant declined to be named but said normal procedure if an emergency call gets channeled into the wrong center is to transfer that call directly to the correct 911 center. That didn't happen with the man I spoke to today. When he accidentally reached the Rockford dispatcher, he had to hang up and call the Winnebago County non-emergency line at 282-2600. He was then directed through a series of prompts before finally speaking with a dispatcher.
The sergeant says she does not know why that happened, but they are looking into the case. She and Lieutenant Fitz say 911 is still the number to call in an emergency.


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