Why Can’t 911 Figure Out Where I Am in Wake Forest?

Reader Question

Dear Wake Forest News,

I have a question/observation about the 911 service in Wake Forest. Not sure if anyone has mentioned this before but since I’ve had to call the # a few times I’ve realized a similar event. When you call 911 and give them your information they say “oh you’re in Wake County”, “let me contact you to that division”. Of course you are then asked all the same questions as the first time. Although I was prepared this time it’s very hard to stay calm when the person on the other end of the phone has no idea where you are.

Why don’t we get connected to the correct station to begin with? Makes me wonder if I called the wrong #? Could have sworn I dialed 911. One time I called about an accident near the famous 1A/Ligon Mill intersection and the operator said “I have no idea where that is. You said you’re in Wake Forest let me connect you to the office there”.

Just wanted “to share”. Thanks for listening to the small voices here in town!!!

Thank you,

Carol

The Best Answer We’ve Got

Dear Carol,

Thanks for sending in your question through this link.

You asked a great question so I went down to visit Barry Furey, the Director of the Raleigh-Wake County Emergency Communications Center to get the straight answer.

In a nutshell the problem is that while we feel as if we live in a modern world with the most advanced technology possible, we don’t.

I suspect you’ve been calling 9-1-1 from a cellphone or VOIP phone. Neither of these communication devices provide clear data where the caller may be. Even the old landline doesn’t tell the 9-1-1 center exactly where the call is coming from. But the installation records do let them know where the line was originally installed.

The very capable and competent Barry Furey and his Emergency Communications Center.
The very capable and competent Barry Furey, Director of the Raleigh-Wake County Emergency Communications Center.

So according to Barry Furey, “It’s a problem with the existing limits of current technology and the way it’s designed to work. Cellphone towers are placed to provide good coverage for the cellphone companies, private corporations. So there are many cell towers which can receive calls from multiple counties.”

He said that many towers only have coverage within Wake County but the cellphone towers on the edges of Wake County have to guess where the call is coming from.

A cellphone tower has three faces from which it receives signals. Basically the area around the tower is divided into thirds. If the majority of calls that hit that face are from let’s say Franklin County, then that peripheral cellphone tower face will be assigned to Franklin County 9-1-1.

When Franklin County gets a 9-1-1 call their system is different than the Wake County system so when the call is transferred the caller will have to start from scratch with the information. All that Wake County gets from the transfer is basically just the caller ID.

You would think that since the phones in our pockets are smart enough to give us turn-by-turn driving directions they would be able to let 9-1-1 operators know exactly where you are calling from. But the reality is the location data a 9-1-1 operator receives is not all that precise. Take the situation where you might be standing at an intersection with office buildings around. Not only would the 9-1-1 operator not be able to tell with certainty which building you might be in, but they wouldn’t have a clue what floor you were on.

Even the incoming telephone lines to the Wake County Emergency Communications Center are analog lines with limited capability. When the 9-1-1 operation moves into their new building in 2016 they will have the most advanced digital communication capability available.

The 9-1-1 system in general in the U.S. is based on late 1960s technology. While there have been tremendous advances in the dispatching and communication computers and software with first responders, technology between citizens and the 9-1-1 centers is still pretty crude all over.

Spotted in Europe, "IN CASE OF FIRE: Please leave the building before posting it on social media."
Spotted in Europe, “IN CASE OF FIRE: Please leave the building before posting it on social media.”
Some areas have been experimenting with accepting 9-1-1 calls via text, and Wake County has an application in with the FCC to ask if they can do this in the future. But for now reaching a 9-1-1 call taker will remain like it has always been where you hope to reach the right person the first time.

I suppose if anything it to be learned from your situation it is whenever anyone calls 9-1-1 up here in the Wake Forest area you should first ask for Wake County just in case your call landed in the wrong spot.

This also happens a lot in other areas also, like over near the Carolina Mudcats stadium where a number of jurisdictions come together.

So Carol I hope that helps to clear up the matter for you and helps us all now know if we are calling for help on our cellphone to first let the 9-1-1 call taker know we are looking for help in Wake County before we wind up having to repeat ourselves while the house burns.

And also, we can’t forget the 9-1-1 call takers and dispatchers are doing the very best they can to provide you with the best help and assistance they can.

Your friends at the Wake Forest News.

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