Can 911 Find Your Location?

Calling 911 is scary in an emergency. You dial the number and hope that police, fire, or EMS will find you. If you’re unsure where you are, you may find yourself asking, does 911 know where you are? How do they determine your location in such a big world?

If you call 911, they may not be able to pinpoint your exact location. However, they can get close. The NCT9-1-1 GIS team works with various communicators to find a spot as close as possible to where you are.

I know that it can seem scary to call 911 without knowing where you are. Luckily, there is a way the operators on the phone can get people to your general location. Read on to learn more about if 911 knows where you are, how they find you, and factors that might make it trickier to locate you in an emergency. I’m here to help.

Does 911 Know Your Location?

Most people assume that the 911 system has access to your location. After all, most of us have GPS on our phones. Unfortunately, in an emergency, 911 can’t access your exact spot.

They can’t even track where you are if you stand inside your residence and make a 911 call. You have to relay the specifics over the phone if you can. If you call by accident, it’s ok! Check out our guide on what to do if you accidentally call 911.

The 911 operator can’t determine your exact location because:

  • Voice calls rely on towers: The location data for a voice call goes through cell phone towers, which can take a long time to transmit.
  • Lack of location data: There is minimal location data in a voice call. It wastes crucial time in an emergency.

A handheld cell phone is much less reliable than a wired phone. I had an officer who used to joke that you can order a pizza while standing on the third floor of a crowded office building and they will deliver it to your door. But, if you call 911 there’s a good chance we may get dispatched to the wrong street.

Scary, but unfortunately true.

Thanks to the way phones work, it can take seconds to minutes for a location to appear for emergency responders. There are even cases where an area doesn’t show up at all. This flaw can lead to disaster in some cases. If you don’t provide a location, it may take a little longer for them to find you.

How Does 911 Find You?

If cell phones are such a problem, how does 911 find you if something goes wrong? There are many ways they can track you in a crisis.

Still, none of them are quite as fast as if a cell phone automatically transmitted your location to their system. Let’s talk about the most prominent form of a location.

Here is the process in a 911 call:

  • Call: You call 911 and inform them of your emergency. They will ask for a location and more information at this point.
  • Transfer: Your call and information transfer to a secondary location. 
  • Location: They attempt to find the location. Home phones offer locations, but cell phones may provide a general latitude and longitude.

They may or may not be able to find you at this point in the call.

Unfortunately, 911 calls are not at the tracking level they should be. That’s why you must provide as much information as possible about your location right up front.

If you have an address, give an address. If you don’t, try to give as many landmarks as possible. These will help them locate you faster.

One other thing you can do is if you’re calling 911 from an iPad, be sure to enable location settings. This may make it easier for 911 dispatchers and first responders to find you. Read the entire article on calling 911 from an iPad here.

Why would 911 NOT be able to find You?

The trickiest part about finding people from a 911 call is outdated technology. Location systems have not kept up with the increased number of people in the world and the advancement of cell phones.

Information from wireless carriers might provide a location a couple of miles from where you are. There are a lot of transfers that happen during a 911 call.

The final ping could be a few houses away from where you are. It could also be in a different county. Until the technology catches up with the times, giving the 911 dispatcher an address is your best bet for a quick arrival time.

It can be scary calling 911. If you use a home phone, they can find your location. If you use a cell phone, dispatchers may have more difficulty pinpointing your address.

I know it’s tough to stay calm, but you need to provide them with an address if possible.

I hope this information was helpful! In an emergency, it’s critical to act fast. Responders want to help, but they need to know where you are. The more you provide them, the faster they will dispatch people to you.