Funding for 911 systems upgrades to help better locate cell phone callers

February 07, 2019 07:37 PM

It's one of the first things we learn as kids: if there's an emergency call 911. However, did you know that calling from a cell phone may make it difficult to find you?

Unlike the legacy landline system, cell phone numbers are not tied to one specific address. That can lengthen response times because dispatchers don't always know where to send first responders.


"Seconds count for everything now with the medical field," Dennis Wood, EMS Captain for the Albany County Sheriff's Office said. "10-15 years ago we would run into it all the time where we were searching for these calls."

Albany County 911 Director Kevin Demarest said it happens more often than you'd think, especially when the caller is focused on the emergency.

"People they just forget where they are," Demarest said.

It's also a problem with tourists. Warren County Undersheriff Shawn Lamouree said his operators see that during summer months.

"Often we get people who travel into Warren County that may not necessarily be familiar with the location, not be familiar with the roads that they travel and it's not uncommon for people to call 911 on a cellular device and not have a very good idea of where they are, especially if they're traveling on the Northway," Lamouree said.

A Federal Communications Commission study found just a one minute delay in emergency response leads to 10,000 unnecessary deaths each year. Other studies have found every minute there's a delay in getting to a victim with a brain or heart emergency, mortality rates double, and cost of care after the emergency increases seven percent.

Many counties, like Warren and Albany, have started upgrading their systems to improve response times.

Lamouree said the Warren County system allows operators to see a caller's location within seconds. While in Albany County, operators send a link via text message to get a caller's permission to locate them.

However, those upgrades were major investments. Demarest said Albany officials decided to work with neighboring counties to lower costs.

"It was over $1.7 million for this, all the services," Demarest said. "It was probably a third of what it would've cost had we not partnered up with Rensselaer County and Saratoga County."

Lamouree said it's almost time for another upgrade to the Warren County system.

"The 911 refresh that we did about five years ago just to give you an idea that was over $400,000 and that something that comes around usually on a five-year basis," Lamouree said.

New York gives out grants to help public safety agencies upgrade their communication equipment. Those grants are funded by monthly fees every cell phone user pays, money that was originally meant to go toward 911 centers only. 

However, law enforcement officials said they don't see much of that money. That's because New York State Tax Code allows a big chunk of it to be allocated to the General Fund.

"So using it for whatever they deem necessary," Warren County Sheriff Bud York said. "So they went in and changed the law to make it public safety so that we can use it for whatever but that tax was originally for 911 centers…It's not right I've never felt it was fair and it's not fair."

An FCC report released late last year found in 2017 New York collected $189 million in Public Safety Communication Surcharges. The report found:

  • $79 million was diverted into the General Fund
  • $32 million went to state police and an emergency loan fund
  • $75 million went to development and consolidation of public safety operations ($10 million of this portion went to Public Safety Answering Point or PSAP grants specifically.)

The FCC said only the PSAP projects are 911 related. So under their guidelines, only $10 million of $189 million collected was spent properly.

NewsChannel 13 reached out to the Department of Homeland Security & Emergency Services, the agency responsible for awarding these grants, but they referred us to the Department of Budget.

A DOB spokesperson said under "New York State Tax Law, The General Fund receives 41.7 percent of the revenue from this fee as the General Fund is the primary funding source for the state's public safety activities."

DOB said allocating some of that money to fund upgrades for public safety communication and emergency service operations is "providing critical funding to help first responders at all levels of government communicate faster and respond sooner."

Lamouree said the funding method pits municipalities against each other.

"You're competing with other Public Safety Answering Points across the state to get a limited pot of money," Lamouree said.

York said his department typically gets about $170,000 from the state for PSAP upgrades each year. Though every little bit helps, he said there's plenty more to go around and he'd like to see some of it.

"If they could give at least $1 million to each 911 center to start, to start that $60 million they still got $140 million left," York said.

To make matters worse, New York municipalities can't apply for federal funding to make the upgrades either because the FCC said the state is violating its spending guidelines.

Advocates with the New York State 911 Coordinators said they would like to see the tax law amended or overwritten the state held accountable for misappropriating the funds.

In the meantime, it's not a bad idea to know how to turn location services on so that dispatchers who do have newer equipment can get your location data.

Wood said you can do that by going into your privacy preferences and select the application you use as a web browser. You should then turn location services on within the application settings and dispatchers with GPS capabilities should be able to find you.

WEB EXTRA: Albany County demonstration

WEB EXTRA: Warren County demonstration

WEB EXTRA: 911 location services change demonstration

Wood said if you want to save your battery or protect your privacy, you don't have to leave the settings on.

"A lot of people don't like the world to know where they are so they leave their location services turned off," Wood said. "Me being one of them but you need to know how in an emergency situation to turn that on."

Here are a few other tips for calling 911:

  • Always stay on the line if you can
  • If you don't know where you are, try to give the operator descriptive details about your surroundings
  • If possible, only call 911 when you are stationary, calling from a moving vehicle makes it more difficult to find you.

MORE INFORMATION: Statewide Interoperable Communications Operations Grant Awards


Emily Burkhard

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