Coverage of 911 lags in Missouri

Tuesday, May 1, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:55 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri’s emergency service coverage lags behind the rest of the country and is among the nation’s worst in allowing 911 operators to determine a caller’s location.

Throughout most of the country, it is assumed that when someone picks up a wireline phone that the caller will be able to connect to a local 911 system, so most of the attention has focused on upgrading existing systems to handle wireless and Internet calls.

An Associated Press review of data from the state, trade groups and a consultant’s report shows that roughly 20 percent of Missouri’s counties do not have a fully functioning system for even landline telephones, and fewer than one-third of Missouri counties can track a cell phone caller’s location.

A recent consultant report shows that among other Midwestern states, only Illinois and Oklahoma lack 911 systems in more than 10 percent of their counties.

And according to March data from the National Emergency Number Association, Missouri is tied with Montana and Nebraska for having the most counties unable to track the origin of 911 calls from landline telephones.

“In one domestic violence case, dispatch staff listened to the abuse for 52 minutes before the abuser finally passed out and the caller could tell them where she was at,” said R.D. Porter, Missouri’s 911 coordinator.

Porter and other emergency service administrators blame the problem on funding. Missouri uses a phone tariff to pay for wireline 911 service, but it is the only state without a statewide fee or tax for wireless 911 service. Voters have twice rejected ballot measures to raise taxes for 911 service, most recently in 2002.

So if a county wants 911 service that can locate a portable device, it needs to find a way to pay for it. And without an upgrade from basic landline service, a call made from a cell phone or through the Internet can end up routed to another county’s call center to dispatchers who are not familiar with the area.

For the 12 Missouri counties that have completely implemented the tracking technology, the difference is significant. James McNabb, the director of Columbia/Boone County Public Safety Joint Communications, said the tracking system must be accurate to within about a football field’s length but is usually even closer than that.

McNabb said more than half the calls from Columbia come from cell phones. Since 2004, the Columbia area 911 system has been able to track the phone call and plot it on a map to speed response times.

“The more people we have, the more people there are with cell phones,” he said. “A lot of times, people are not familiar with the area and don’t know where they are at, so they can’t tell us.”

Lana Andersen, last year, checked to make sure she had her cell phone with her before leaving her family farm to take her father to the hospital after he began complaining of chest tightness. She got about three miles from the town of Versailles when he suffered a heart attack. Although she stopped at a family friend’s house along a road she had traveled for 40 years, she couldn’t remember the highway’s name nor the friend’s address to tell dispatchers.

The call from Andersen’s cell phone was routed to a different county, and she could only explain what the house in front of her car looked like as she attempted to perform CPR and talk to operators.

“I finally ended up throwing the phone. It was complete frustration, and I just kept screaming,” she said. “I kept describing the house because that’s the only thing I could do.”

She said emergency responders finally located her car after someone called 911 using her friends’ landline telephone, but by that time, it was too late and her father eventually died.

The vast majority of Missouri’s population has access to wireline 911 service, and even most of the population — 62 percent — has limited access to 911 service that could trace a cell phone call, depending on the carrier. Nationwide, 99 percent of the population lives in an area with basic 911 service while 83 percent live where there is some tracking ability for wireless phones.

But living in a largely rural county that still cannot track wireless calls, Andersen said the experience has made her wonder whether cell phones are that useful in an emergency.

“I had a feeling that you dial 911 and everything is going to be all right,” she said. “I don’t know if I was misled or just misunderstood, but that’s what I thought.”

Missouri’s hodgepodge of 911 access led Gov. Matt Blunt to recently call for the creation of a legislative committee to study ways to expand 911 coverage.

Part of the problem in Missouri is that the bulk of the population is covered by 911 and lives in areas with at least some capability to track wireless calls. People do not realize that significant chunks of the state cannot track the calls, which makes it difficult to get lawmakers or the public to support a new fee or a higher tax.

“What’s going to happen is someone very important’s family member is going to die, and then, they’re going to attach someone’s name to it. And then it’s going to pass,” said Rick Bias, the director of 911 communications in Morgan County.

Bias said the current system is a particular problem at the Lake of the Ozarks because none of the counties that border the popular recreational lake can trace a wireless call’s location.

Bias and other county administrators described numerous examples where responders tried to locate callers, sometimes honking fire engine horns so the dispatcher could report back to the responders whether the noise was getting louder or quieter.

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