If an Uber driver can precisely find you in a crowded downtown using the electronic signal from your cellphone, shouldn’t a 911 operator be able to find you just as quickly in an emergency?
Yet, the 911 system failed my wife, Laura Levis, in 2016 when she collapsed from an asthma attack on a bench outside the emergency room of CHA Somerville Hospital. Although she told operators her location, the 911 system erroneously put her phone hundreds of feet away. By the time firefighters finally found her 10 minutes later, as I wrote last fall, she had stopped breathing and never regained consciousness.
Industry experts and government officials say the 911 system has improved since my wife’s death. I wanted to know if this was indeed true. So one recent morning, accompanied by the deputy police chief of Somerville, I returned to the hospital bench at the exact hour Laura was there — 4 a.m. — to test the system. Picking a phone from my bag, I began calling 911.
“911 this line is recorded,” said the operator. “Where is the location of your emergency?”
I explained that I didn’t have an emergency; I just wanted to know where she thought I was.
“Right now I’ve got absolutely nothing on you,” she said.
“Really? You have no idea where I am?” I asked.
In eight test calls made on phones from each major carrier, operators placed us in a scattershot of locations — some incredibly accurate, but others, down the street or even thousands of feet away. And one operator had no information on our location at all.
The system continuously takes readings on 911 calls to update the location of the caller. And indeed, in our test, within a minute or two, operators often got a better fix on our position, sometimes to within 100 feet of the bench. But that doesn’t erase the initial confusion when critical decisions are being made.
We also encountered another issue: Six of the eight calls went to operators outside Somerville, who could not immediately send help. Instead, the calls were routed to an operator at Boston Police Headquarters or to a regional call center that fields wireless 911 calls from numerous communities and forwards emergencies to local authorities. That’s what happened to Laura: Her call went to a regional center in Framingham, which then had to transfer her to Somerville police after she had already explained her emergency once, wasting precious minutes.
What struck Deputy Chief Stephen Carrabino and me most was how random each of the results was: that even in 2019, your 911 call could be a roll of the dice. And that, unfortunately, holds true for nearly all the 2.5 million wireless 911 calls the state annually receives.
“You could do the same call from Laura’s bench, the same phone, and out of eight calls, get different results,” said Norm Fournier, deputy executive director of the State 911 Department.
And the people who oversee the 911 system know that’s not good enough. Not when Uber, or practically any other mobile app, can pinpoint your location to within a stone’s throw using GPS location data that phones have been able to transmit for years at the push of a button.
“We are out there making a commitment to people, and that commitment is that you call and we will get you the appropriate resources and response in a timely fashion,” said Bridgewater Police Chief Christopher Delmonte, a member of the Massachusetts State 911 Commission. “But the technology is not achieving what it should.”
Back in 2016, when Laura placed her call, nearly all 911 cellphone calls went to State Police regional call centers — essentially middlemen who couldn’t dispatch immediate help. But since 2017, the state has been moving toward a new system called “Wireless Direct,” in which the nearest local police department is supposed to answer your call, just as it always has with landline calls.
State 911 officials are also trying to use the same GPS data that guide Uber and Lyft drivers to customers. RapidSoS, developed by a duo from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, promises to better zero in on your exact location by reducing the general area around your position to within a 100-foot radius. This is known as the “confidence circle,” and that morning in 2016 when Laura dialed 911, the circle was likely several city blocks wide, one of the main reasons she was not saved.
But neither Wireless Direct nor RapidSoS work as well as they should.
When you push the button on a 911 call, the cellphone carrier is supposed to provide operators with your approximate location within 30 seconds. And often they do; sometimes even within a second or so, the nearest police station gets the call and has a general fix on the caller’s location. But for many reasons — a GPS signal isn’t immediately available, for example, or cellphone interference or the nearest cell tower is far away — the call can be routed to a regional center or another police department, which then has to pass it on to the correct dispatcher.
About half of all 911 calls the state receives still go to a regional call center, or the wrong police department instead of the local station, state officials acknowledge, largely because cellphone carriers are not able to fix the caller’s exact location right away.
If that average holds across all 911 calls made in Massachusetts, then more than 1 million emergency requests in 2019 initially won’t go where they’re supposed to — a staggering statistic.
The Uber- and Lyft-style GPS information from RapidSoS, meanwhile, isn’t always available, partly because the system is so new and works only with smartphones with updated operating software, or that can produce a strong GPS signal. On average, 65 percent of Massachusetts 911 calls can send a RapidSoS location.
Boston police receive 911 calls both by using GPS data and the old-fashioned way: accepting any call that hits a city cell tower. And unlike in our test, at least 90 percent of calls made within the city each month are routed to Boston police, said Christopher Markunas, the department’s civilian 911 manager.
But as cell towers often serve two, three, or four communities at once, that also means Boston gets many 911 requests it shouldn’t — thousands from callers in bordering communities, including Chelsea, Somerville, Brookline and Braintree.
“We just get everything, sir. I’m going to be quite honest with you,” said the Boston police operator who answered our third test call from Somerville. “Our call volume is through the roof.”
Every call we made that morning, save for one, eventually located us within about 250 feet of the emergency room, though often operators did not know whether we were in a house across the street, or outside on the street itself, or elsewhere at the hospital. Sometimes readings provided by wireless carriers were very strong, but our RapidSoS readings, which appeared on our operators’ screens at the push of a button, were more precise.
Of course, even several hundred feet can be a wide margin of error. But that at least put us in the ballpark. When Laura called in 2016, the confidence circle her operators saw was likely several football fields wide, covering the entire hospital grounds plus adjacent streets — locations well out of the line of sight of her actual location.
The 911 system also has a new feature: texting. But our tests weren’t encouraging. Of the three texts we sent that morning, not a single operator had a clue we were near the Somerville Hospital emergency room; one text bounced around among several distant locations, including one that placed us on the campus of Tufts University, more than a mile away.
Other states also have problems with the accuracy of their 911 systems. But Massachusetts has many small cities and towns with unusual shapes or zig-zag borders that make it difficult to properly route 911 calls without a strong GPS signal, state officials say. In parts of the country where 911 operations are based on a countywide system that dispatches help across large square-like geographies, programs akin to Wireless Direct send calls to the right police department 75 to 95 percent of the time – far better than in Massachusetts.
Nonetheless, we are taking steps in the right direction.
The National Emergency Number Association, a nonprofit group that advocates for better 911 service, predicts that in as little as one year, every national cellphone carrier will be incorporating iPhone and Android smartphone GPS information into the caller information they provide to 911 operators.
If that happens, cellphone carriers might finally be able to quickly and accurately locate a 911 call and route it to the nearest police department almost every time.
Meanwhile, the creators of RapidSoS, Michael Martin, a Harvard Business School grad, and Nick Horelik, who has a PhD from MIT, predict their service, too, will improve with time, noting it’s only been operational nationwide for about nine months. In the future, RapidSoS might also transmit information such as whether a caller has a pre-existing heart condition, or asthma, directly to 911 operators.
But Fournier said people calling 911 shouldn’t assume technology alone will protect them.
“Even if you placed a call and it routed to the exact location every time, the message would always be location, location, location,” Fournier said. “We want people, when they can speak, to tell us where they’re at. Don’t just assume because you watch ‘CSI’ or something else on TV that we can always get that perfect location information.”
In our test in Somerville, all but one of our calls, whether determined by the cellphone carrier or via the RapidSoS system, put us at the top of the hill where the hospital sits. In 2016, that information alone would probably have been enough for responders to begin their search for Laura near the emergency room, instead of where they went that morning — at the bottom of the hill, more than 700 feet away.
And beyond our small test, Wireless Direct is still getting 50 percent of 911 calls to nearby operators, who are likely to have firsthand knowledge of the local geography, such as the layout of a hospital campus.
That’s a bittersweet thought: I want our 911 system to improve so that others will be saved. And yet . . . to think Laura could be alive if our system had been more advanced.
As Deputy Carrabino and I finished our final call, a ray of dawn light cracked across the horizon. I was tired and emotionally drained.
“Come on. I’ll give you a ride in my cruiser,” offered Carrabino, patting me on the shoulder.
I shook my head.
“No,” I said, “I’m going to call an Uber.”
A few minutes later, a black SUV pulled up to Somerville Hospital, stopping directly in line with the bench where Laura collapsed. I asked the driver whether he had any trouble finding me, and he pointed to the cellphone mounted on his dashboard.
“I just followed this,” he said.