Cellphones, smart watches can help 911 operators locate people in an emergency

Defenders put technology to test to see if it works in SA

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SAN ANTONIO – Last year, 74 percent of the approximately 1.5 million 911 calls the city of San Antonio answered were generated from cellphones.

While many calls are made from locations the caller is familiar with, some are not. If you can't tell a 911 operator where you are, it could lead to delays in getting you help.

The Defenders recently set up a test with the San Antonio Police Department and the city's emergency communications center to see if the technology really works. The test did not tie up any emergency services.

The 911 operator was in training and not actively taking live calls, and SAPD provided a San Antonio Fear Free Environment officer to participate in the test.

A KSAT producer went to two random locations and contacted 911 to see if police could locate her with minimal information.

The first call was generated using the S.O.S. feature on the producer's smart watch. Police communications administrator Robert Uribe explained how the feature works.

"You touch the (watch) screen for several seconds and it initiates a 911 call, so the wearer of the watch can talk directly to a 911 call taker," Uribe said.

While our producer only provided a vague description of her surroundings, the 911 operator already had a general location generated by the producer's watch that showed up on a map, but it did not provide an exact location.

Within a few minutes of calling 911, the officer taking part in the test located the producer in Brackenridge Park.

Uribe said operators are trained to help callers find landmarks around them when they are in an area they are unfamiliar with to try to narrow down where they are.

"When that fails, we also use GPS coordinates if it's being delivered through the cellphone services the caller is using.

For our second test, our producer contacted 911 through a text message, a relatively new feature for San Antonio that was added in July 2015.

"It's not as frequent as our calls, obviously, but it does happen periodically," Uribe said.

To send a text to 911 you simply type "911" in the "to" line of the text and then type your emergency message in the text field.

"It will show up to the 911 call taker. It will be a pop-up in their screen that shows they have a live text to 911 call," Uribe said.

Unlike a 911 call generated by a voice call, the text message includes detailed GPS coordinates where the message originated from, which helps pinpoint the person's location.

Within a few minutes of sending the text to 911, the officer easily found our producer.

While the text to 911 seemed to provide a more accurate location than the voice call, Uribe said the technology does have limitations, especially if you're calling from inside a building with more than one floor.

"The technology will not tell us what floor you're on, it will only give us the general coordinates for the ground floor," Uribe said.

While smart phones can help first responders find people faster, there have been some problems associated with the technology.

Uribe said they've seen an increase in 911 hang-up calls, which are typically dialed by mistake.

"We see that very often, and what we would recommend the citizens do is to stay on the line and explain that it was an accidental dial," Uribe said. "That way you won't be tying up officers who will likely be sent to your location."

About the Author:

Tim Gerber is an investigative reporter and anchor on the KSAT Defenders team.