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Emergency with 911: Most cell phone 911 calls do not show GPS location

We rely on 911 during emergencies but what if your call doesn't work? Carlo Cecchetto uncovers the serious system flaw that can keep help from getting to you fast.

SAN DIEGO, Calif.  (CBS 8) -- Many people don't realize when they call 911 using a cell phone there's a very good chance police officers and firefighters will not be able to find them. That's because the technology is not up to date to provide GPS location information to first responders.

It's a flaw in the system that leads to delayed response times and deaths.

It happens every day all over the country and here in San Diego County.

It happened to Linda Leong in 2007 when her husband, Richard Scuba, collapsed and died from a heart attack on a Rancho Santa Fe soccer field.

“The dispatcher operator came on and asked me the nature of my emergency and I said I think my husband just had a heart attack and we need an ambulance,” recalled Leong.

Leong had used her cell phone to call 911 but without an exact street address the California Highway Patrol dispatcher was unable to locate the soccer field.

“And she says, ‘No, I cannot find you. I cannot triangulate you. I need an address.' And so, we went back and forth and by then my husband stopped breathing,” said Leong.

In most neighborhoods around San Diego, cell phone 911 calls initially are routed to the CHP. The dispatcher must then determine which agency has jurisdiction to respond to the call.

Without GPS location data, chances are the CHP dispatcher will not know your location unless the you can relay that specific information.

Statewide, only about one third of the cell phone calls to 911 come in carrying GPS information. The other two thirds only transmit the address of the cell phone tower the cell phone is using.

“A cell phone tower location can be off anywhere from a few feet to five miles,” said CHP Dispatch Supervisor Levi Kennell.

State legislators are working on a plan to upgrade the 911 system so that all calls come in with GPS latitude and longitude data. But there isn't enough funding and the so-called "next-generation" 911 system is still many years away.

“If you're using a cell phone to call 911 you should know your location, know your address or cross street. That will help the dispatcher quickly process your call,” said Kennell.

Leong recently traveled to Sacramento to testify about her husband's death before the State Assembly Select Committee on Local Emergency Preparedness.

State experts told the committee that 73% of all 911 calls are made using a cell phone, yet only 37% of cell phone emergency calls transmit GPS data to dispatchers.

Moreover, first responders not only need latitude and longitude information but altitude information as well in situations where callers are located in high-rise buildings.

The cost to upgrade the state's 911 system is estimated at $900 million over the next five years, according to legislative testimony.

“Everybody should know that we're in a precarious state of affairs with 911 today,” said Leong, the Rancho Santa Fe resident.

“Things need to change. The budget needs to change. And the equipment needs to be upgraded,” she said.

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