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Our 911 system is a whole lot messier than it should be

Lisa Fogarty


Lisa Fogarty

Lisa Fogarty has written numerous articles for USA Today, The Stir, Opposing Views and other publications. She has covered everything from red carpet events to the discovery of toxic PCBs on school windows. She lives on Long Island, N.Y....

It turns out calling 911 in an emergency might not bring help after all

If you've ever thought so little about 911 that you've "butt-dialed" the emergency number and didn't realize it until hours later, you're in good company. On Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the host revealed that an astounding 84 million calls made to 911 last year were the result of "butt dialing," something that obviously took up valuable resources that could have been used by people in need. But 911 has a far bigger problem on its hands than that.

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Many of us grew up learning that 911 could be counted on for all emergencies, big and small. This might account for dispatchers receiving 240 million calls a year, according to Oliver — and why some of those calls deal with 'urgent' matters like finding a baby lizard in a house and concern from one couple who thought their lives were in danger because they ate too many brownies. Oliver reminds us that we believe the system works — but that, in reality, it isn't working as well as it should be.

"The system can break down more than you think and, when it does, people can die as a result," Oliver said.

What specific failure is he referring to? Sadly, it's one that businesses like Uber and even Domino's Pizza have already addressed: location accuracy.

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Depending on where you live, 911 can be underfunded and understaffed. Roughly 70–80% of all 911 calls come from cell phones, but 911 doesn’t yet possess the technology needed to track those calls the way it could if you were phoning in from a landline. Sometimes, a 911 dispatcher will pull up the address of a cell phone tower where the call was routed to and not your actual outside location — a frightening thought.

The FCC has mandated that 911 improve accuracy, but the bar it has set is surprisingly low. Dispatchers and emergency workers will be required to find callers at least 80% of the time, Oliver said. Sounds wonderful until you hear that this translates to tracking down just one out of every five callers. 'Next Generation 911' would allow callers to exchange videos and text messages with 911, which would be a great help to many, including anyone dealing with a domestic violence situation. But, as of 2016, not one state has implemented the new plan.

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In a nutshell, 911 isn't getting the attention and funding it deserves. There are major cities in the U.S. that are so understaffed, you could actually receive an automated response when you call 911. And, you know that up-to-$2 charge that appears on your phone bill when you successfully dial (or butt-dial) 911? Oliver found that at least 20 states have diverted funds received from 911 phone call fees elsewhere.

What could be more important than providing a lifesaving service to people who need it most? It's time to bring 911 up to date and provide the technology and employees needed to create a reliable and effective service.

Before you go, check out our slideshow below:

It turns out calling 911 in an emergency might not bring help after all
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