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Before You Call 911 on a Cell Phone

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Updated January 25, 2014

When you call 911 in most parts of the country, emergency responders can find you - even if you don't know where you are or can't communicate. That's because calling 911 from a landline (a telephone connected to the lines on the poles) makes a computer in the dispatch center show the number and address of the phone you're using.

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Cell Phones Don't Work the Same

When you make a 911 call on a cell phone, you are sending signals through the air. The tower that picks up your phone's signal may be near, but it isn't enough to tell the dispatcher where to find you. It's like playing "Marco Polo" in the pool - blindfolded with just sound to guide you.

The Federal Communications Commission has required that all wireless carriers be able to pinpoint your location for the 911 dispatchers, but the rule is coming in phases and there are plenty of exceptions.

 

Location, Location, Location

When you call 911 from a cell phone, the call often lands in a regional center. A call-taker in a far-away city or county may answer your call. To get help to you, there are two pieces of information the call-taker needs to know immediately:

  1. Tell the call-taker which city you're calling from.
  2. Tell the call-taker what type of emergency you have.

Different emergency services use different dispatch centers. With the right information, the call-taker will transfer you to the right center.

     

    Any Phone Will Do

    Wireless carriers are required to complete 911 calls, even when the phone is not activated. Any phone that turns on and can receive a signal is capable of making a 911 call.

    The problem is: if the phone you're using isn't activated, there isn't a phone number assigned to it. That means if you're disconnected from the dispatch center, you must call 911 back. They will not have a way to call you.

       

      Stay calm be clear

      Professional call-takers are trained to get information from you. They're staring at a computer screen that has all the relevant questions. Listen carefully, and answer as concisely as possible.

      Remember, responders can only respond if they know where they're going. Make sure you get the location as detailed as possible.

      The FCC says 30% of all 911 calls come from cell phones. With this simple advice, you can summon the help you need from your cell phone.

      Questions? Comments? Post to the Forum!

         

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