Special Report: Who can find you faster, Uber or 911?

Special Report: Who can find you faster, Uber or 911?


In a life or death situation, emergency dispatchers play a vital role, moving quickly to send help to your location.

But if you’re lost, who can find you faster: a dispatcher, or a nearby Uber driver?

Waukesha County Emergency Preparedness Director Gary Bell says it’s not even close: It’s the Uber driver.

“We’re stuck in the 1960’s, and using that infrastructure to try and deliver high level data,” he says.

The premise is pretty simple, Uber uses a fiber network that taps directly into your location services. 911 dispatchers have to request that information through your cell phone company.

It’s an issue many states are addressing through next generation 911 technology.

There’s just one issue: Wisconsin is one of the worst states in the country for 911 funding.

“We’re not making any money as Uber, or the pizza guy is making money,” says Bell. “There’s a commercial aspect to this, and obviously the technology flows where the money is. Right now, we don’t have the money to compete with commercial interests.”

Where’s the Money?

Every month when you pay your cell phone bill, you’re charged a 75-cent “Police and Fire Protection Fee”.

This money was initially designed to fund local emergency dispatch, but in 2009, faced with declining revenue, state legislators moved that money into the general fund. That money is dispersed through shared revenue, forcing city and county dispatch centers to rely primarily on local money to fund training, staff, and technology.

“The state of Wisconsin, we’re behind,” says Bell. “We were, with Missouri, the only two states that didn’t have a plan in place.”

That all changed this year, when Governor Walker put $7M towards funding a new Office of Emergency Communications.

That money is just a portion of what the state collects every year through Fire and Police Protection fees.

 “Indiana is really on the front edge of that,” says Bell. “So we’re trying to take the lessons learned, and apply them here in Wisconsin.”

Indiana has had a similar statewide agency since 2012, shoveling millions of dollars into technology across the state.

It’s led to huge advancements across the state, which last year became the first state to be completely text-to-911 compliant.

That means dispatchers can receive, and send, text messages.

 “We lead the country in the total number of text messages that are not only inbound, but also outbound,” says Ed Reuter, Executive Director for Indiana’s 911 board.

“If we have a 911 disconnect, we can send them text messages to see if they’re okay. There have been domestic violence cases, there’s been drug cases, there’s been suicide cases.”

Every cell phone holder in Indiana pays $1 a month for Fire and Police Protection. That entire fee goes directly toward emergency dispatch.

 “We assist counties and stabilize their funding with about 43% of their bill,” he says.

“We feel like we’ve relieved that pressure off the 911 directors locally.”

It’s a pressure directors like Bell are facing in Wisconsin. Waukesha County has text to 911 capabilities, but neighboring counties do not.

They’re also unable to easily transfer calls from county-to-county, an issue if there was to be a large-scale emergency.

“If you have a certain standard in a neighboring county that’s different than yours, it’s very difficult to transfer that information.”

The NextGen technology also makes it easier for emergency dispatchers to locate callers who disconnect.

Right now, dispatchers locate you based off what cell tower your phone pings to. They can tell which side of that tower you’re on, but that’s where the accuracy ends.

In Waukesha County, it takes about 30 seconds to track a “phase 2” location, which is far more accurate.

NextGen technology allows dispatchers to track an X and Y coordinate almost immediately.

“That’s what we’re going towards,” says Bell. “Wisconsin is on the right path. We need a fiber network similar to what Uber uses, similar to what the pizza guy uses, in order to get information accurately to us.”

Bell says it’s very rare that dispatchers wouldn’t be able to track your exact location through a Phase 2 request, but says he’d like to see it done faster.

“When you need us, we’re going to be here, and we want you to have the same confidence as your Uber driver taking you to an event as your ambulance that needs to arrive at your house.”

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