Uber can pinpoint exactly where drivers need to pick up passengers. Facebook knows when users travel to new cities and what places their friends have visited there. Google can tell drivers where they're headed and how long their journey will take before they even put the car in gear.

But in 2018, even the smartest of smartphones needs help telling a 911 center the caller's location.

Four of every five 911 calls made in Nebraska are on cellphones, and finding where an emergency is happening remains a vital priority, according to public safety officials.

"(It's) not nearly as precise as people are led to believe from movies," Lincoln Public Safety Director Tom Casady said. "And not nearly as precise as they’re led to believe from the apps that they use every day on their phone."

This technological disconnect has consequences.

The family of a woman who died of an asthma attack filed claims against the City of Omaha and Douglas County last fall, accusing the 911 center of failing to locate her when she called for help last May.

The woman repeatedly gave the county's 911 center the wrong address, and dispatchers took an hour to pinpoint her exact Benson neighborhood address after finally calling her cellphone provider and asking for subscriber information, the Omaha World-Herald reported.

Public safety officials say the bridge for this gap is coming, as Nebraska and other states fundamentally transform the 50-year-old 911 system built for landline telephones to one capable of sending texts and photos.

"It will move that direction, but not at the speed of light,” Casady said.

Since 911's adoption in 1968, governments have made tweaks to address location issues.

In the mid-2000s, Lancaster County installed blue-and-white reflective address signs at the entrances to rural driveways to help emergency responders find the right place.

Other neighboring counties followed suit, though the signs weren't always popular with residents.

The current method for routing cellphone calls to 911 centers emerged following telecommunications changes in the late 1990s, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

When a 911 call is placed on a cellphone, the call taker is informed which cellphone tower the call was routed from and its general location, Casady said. Only as the call goes on do call takers have the ability to triangulate the caller's location, a process that gives the call taker an approximate location with a confidence level up to 300 meters.

By contrast, a landline call to 911 automatically delivers subscriber address information to the 911 center, he said.

Cellphone calls to 911 in urban areas often pose the biggest trouble because of the imprecise call-locating resources available, Casady said.

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Wireless calling to 911 centers has triggered plans to adopt a new system, referred to as Next Generation 911, said Ryan Wineteer of Aurora-based Hamilton Telecommunications.

Currently, the technology in 911 centers is incapable of receiving the detailed GPS data cellphone users can see when they open their mobile map applications, Casady said.

But efforts are underway to build the infrastructure for a Next Generation 911 system in Nebraska, said state 911 director Dave Sankey.

That system will be based on a Voice over Internet Protocol system, or Internet Calling.

The Nebraska Public Service Commission will create a statewide network where emergency calls are properly identified and routed to the closest 911 center. That network will allow for the transmission of more information than the current system, which is based on copper telephone wires, Sankey said.

Cell towers will still relay calls, but they will pass through the network to the 911 centers, which will remain locally controlled and operated, he said.

State Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson has introduced a bill (LB993) that would create an advisory group of experts on the issue for the Public Service Commission. 

That group would make recommendations on the system before the commission put out bids, which Sankey said could come as early as next fall.

His staff has already begun working on stitching together accurate GIS maps of city and county boundaries, law enforcement jurisdictions, fire districts, streets and home addresses to ensure 911 centers can identify and dispatch the right services to the right place, Sankey said.

"We’re going to have to develop those GIS maps so there aren't any gaps or slivers, so that when somebody calls they’re not in one of those gray areas (where) the system can’t identify where the caller is calling from,” he said.

This system would provide significantly more accurate geographic coordinates for wireless callers, Sankey said.

Nebraska is in the middle of the pack nationally in building the 911 system of the future, Sankey said. Kansas and Iowa are a little farther along in the process, he said.

Until it arrives, 911 call takers will be reliant on callers relaying location information as best they can.

"You’d be surprised how often people don’t know where they’re at,” said Casady, adding that sometimes addresses are misheard or misidentified.

He remembers being impressed by the information cellphone calls provided when routing information debuted in 911 centers. Now the goal is precise information.

"The world has changed, and we’ve all changed with the current technology," Casady said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.


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