Using Your Cell Phone in an Emergency

Many people rely on their cellular phone for emergencies.  In fact approximately 60% of calls made to 911 are from mobile phones.1  This post explains what your cell phone can and cannot do for you in the case of an emergency.

In case you don’t have time to read this whole post, here are some tips:

  • Call 911 from a landline whenever possible. A recent survey indicated that a landline (a traditional phone) is by far the most reliable method to call 911, then Voice over IP phones (VoIP internet phone like Vonage, etc.), then cell phones.1
  • Expect to be asked for your address by the 911 dispatcher.1
  • If you are trying to be found, attempt to make periodic calls (to anyone, ideally 911) if you can.  The data these call create could help people find you… even if the calls don’t go through.
  • If you are unable to make a call, try to at least turn your phone on. It might be possible for your cellular provider to locate you if your phone is on. 
  • In general keep your cell phone fully charged.  If you drive, invest in a car charger.  Consider keeping a hand-wound cell phone charger in your car in case your car dies.
  • If you have a low battery, turn your phone on periodically and attempt to make a call if possible, ideally 911.
  • If you call 911 from your cell phone and get a busy signal, a dropped call, or poor voice quality; try again. If that still doesn’t work try changing locations or have someone else call if possible.1

Calling 911 From Your Cell Phone

If you call 911 from your mobile phone you will most likely be processed through a Wireless E911 system. Most 911 call centers across the country use this system for wireless callers.  This system functions differently depending upon who your carrier is.  Ideally with either system you will be able to tell the 911 dispatcher your location and phone number.  However, if you can’t here is what to expect:

AT&T Wireless/Cingular, T-MobileThese companies use their cellular towers to track 911 callers.  Your phone must be within signal range of at least 3 towers in order for them to “triangulate” your location.  This system will easily be able to pinpoint you in urban areas where there are lots of towers, but will have a tough time in remote areas where one tower could cover a 5-mile radius. 

Verizon Wireless, Sprint/NextelThese carriers use a GPS system to track 911 callers.  This system works off a chip in the cell phone and determines your location based on a collection of low orbiting satellites.  This system is highly accurate in remote areas, where your phone has full access to the sky.  However, in urban areas there are many obstacles that can block satellite signals.  Additionally severe weather can impact satellite signals.  If you need to call 911 from an urban setting or indoors, it is recommended that you get close to a window to allow the satellites to locate you. 

If you happen to be in an area of the country where the 911 call centers do not have a Wireless E911 system, you may have to provide all of your information verbally.  This is most likely the case in very remote areas, particularly in Nebraska.

What If You Can’t Call 911?

If you cannot call 911 (because you’re incapacitated or you don’t have a strong enough signal), there may still be hope as long as your cell phone is on.

If your friends or family realize you are missing, they can notify the police who can issue a subpoena to your cellular company for access to your private cell phone data.  This data may show your location if your phone is on and it has a signal.  If your phone is off, they may be able to see your last location before you lost your signal or turned your phone off.  Some companies may not store history of this type of data, which is why it is better to attempt to make calls.  Even if the calls don’t go through, you are creating better data for people to try to find you.

If your battery is low, consider turning on your phone periodically for brief periods, say a minute or so.  This will give your cell phone enough time to detect a signal.   And the process of detecting a signal might provide the data your provider can use to locate you.

If your phone has a GPS chip (most newer Verizon and Nextel phones have this), your chances are better depending upon how sophisticated the GPS functionality associated with your phone is.  There are so many models of phones out there (and they are constantly changing!), that it is impossible to be more specific here.

Addressing the Internet/Email Rumors…

  • There is no worldwide emergency number to use in place of 911 in North America.
  • There is no universal number that works when your cell phone has no signal.
  • There is no universal code that will automatically connect you with highway patrol. Here are the Highway Notification Numbers for each state.
  • You cannot unlock your car door via a cell phone in any way.
  • There is no universal code to reserve battery power. Some Nokia phones do have a code that lowers voice quality (and reserves battery power as a result). Check your manual, if you have a Nokia phone.
  • There is no way to disable or locate a stolen phone. Call your cellular provider to report it lost or stolen.
  • Turning on the “Location On” feature does not allow your phone to act as a beacon and send out a signal to allow people to locate your phone. Turning this feature on allows specific GPS add-on applications (like Verizon’s Navigator, which provides maps and directions) to determine your location.  However, I don’t know of any negatives of turning this feature on, other than privacy issues… and I’m wondering if it would help either eliminate or expedite the subpoena process.  I’ll check on this.
  • There is no free web site that allows users to track a given cell phone.

Storing an “In Case of Emergency” (ICE) number in your phone

It is true that a campaign is underway to promote storing an ICE entry in your cellular phone.  The idea is that if something happens to you, paramedics or hospital personnel (or whoever!) will look up the number and call whomever you’ve listed under “ICE”.   Doing this won’t really hurt anything, but it really isn’t guaranteed to work.  And it certainly isn’t listed in any standard practices and procedures for paramedics to look for an ICE number.   The LA Fire Department provides more information on their web site.

Note: The author of this post was a Management Consultant in the Telecommunications Industry for over 10 years, most recently negotiating enterprise level cellular contracts.

Sources:         

1 Consumer Reports – Phoning 911 http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/electronics-computers/news-electronics-computers/phoning-911-1-07/overview/0107_911_ov.htm?resultPageIndex=1&resultIndex=1&searchTerm=911%20calls        

Growing Wireless Use Highlights Limitations of 911, USA Today http://www.usatoday.com/tech/wireless/2007-04-22-e911-systems_N.htm

1 Comment

  1. Hi – I was interested in finding out where to turn on “location” as you talked about: Turning on the “Location On” feature does not allow your phone to act as a beacon and send out a signal to allow people to locate your phone. Turning this feature on allows specific GPS add-on applications (like Verizon’s Navigator, which provides maps and directions) to determine your location. However, I don’t know of any negatives of turning this feature on, other than privacy issues… and I’m wondering if it would help either eliminate or expedite the subpoena process. I’ll check on this.

    Where do you do this on a cell phone? What shold I be looking for to turn mine on? I have an LG C1300.

    Thanks for any help.
    Mary Sutton

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