How To Fix 911
By Christine Kenneally Saturday, Apr. 16, 2011 Time
The phone rang at 4:43 a.m. on March 27, 2007. Patty Michaels, a dispatcher at a 911 call center in Belleville, Ill., picked up. On the other end, a woman screamed for help. She said her husband had attacked her. Michaels heard a baby crying in the background. The caller's address appeared on Michaels' screen: it was in O'Fallon, Ill., less than 10 miles away. Michaels asked the woman to confirm it. "That's when it got really tricky," she says. The caller wasn't in Illinois. She was in South Korea.
Two days earlier, the woman and her baby had left O'Fallon to join her husband, an Army serviceman posted in Seoul. She was locked in her bedroom, afraid for her life. But because the woman had dialed911 from a VOIP - voice over Internet protocol - service, using a computer, Michaels had no way of finding her. The 911 system doesn't locate computers; it shows only the address that the phone service is registered to, and when Michaels' caller left the country, she didn't update her address.
That small lapse underlies the fundamental problem of 911: it was developed for landlines back in the days when copper wires ran between a telephone and a central switch. But since 1968, when the first 911 call, a ceremonial test case, rang in Haleyville, Ala., the service has grown to cover 96% of the U.S. and now receives some 240 million calls a year - less than half from landlines in many communities.
Americans assume we can connect to 911 in all the ways we connect to each other. Our GPS-enabled smart phone, Google and Foursquare may know exactly where we are at any given time, but unfortunately, these technologies aren't compatible with standard 911. Traditional emergency services don't take texts, photos, Skype calls or videos either. Then there are social media like Twitter and Facebook, which work when our phones don't. After the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, millions of people communicated through social networks when landlines went down and mobile networks were overwhelmed. Within an hour of the earthquake, more than 1,200 tweets a minute were coming from Tokyo, including video updates on the scene. But a system like 911 - the first first responder - is out of the loop.