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Cell phone confusion slows emergency responders

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Phones rang and rang at the St. Joseph County Dispatch center on Thursday every time it snows, Paul Johnson said, “We get an abundance of calls.”

Most of the calls are made on cell phones by drivers who run into trouble on the icy roads, “We get a lot of slide offs, crashes, and break downs,” Johnson said.

Each call was answered by the same question, “9-1-1, what’s the address of your emergency?” Johnson said into his headset, but he rarely got an answer. Johnson said, “A lot of people don’t know where they’re at.”

Drivers don’t pay attention to signs to mile markers, so when they unexpectedly run into trouble, people do not know where they are and dispatcher can have a hard time tracking them down.

“What they need to remember is, when they’re out there we don’t always know where they are,” Johnson said.

Unlike landlines, dispatchers cannot trace cell phone calls to an exact location. Johnson said they know the area, but can’t pinpoint where the caller is at.

“Can you give me a better location of your address?” Johnson asked, “What road are you on?”

The most difficult part, Johnson said, “Getting them to calm down and getting them to cooperate with us and giving us a location of where they’re at.”

When people realize they need help, but don’t know where to send emergency responders, Johnson said people get flustered. “They do panic, they just want help and they want help now.”

Dispatchers ask drivers to take a look at what’s around them, mailboxes, signs, schools, anything to give them an indication of where they’re at. Johnson said the process does work, but it slows him and emergency responders down. “Especially if you’re in an emergency situation where someone is injured it does take a little longer,” Johnson said.

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