Be aware: Calling 911 from a cellphone is different than landline calls



Wireless phones do not work the same as landlines when calling 911.

When calling 911 from a landline in most parts of the country, emergency responders can find you even if you do not know where you are or cannot communicate. Calling 911 from a landline (a telephone connected to the lines on a telephone pole) allows a computer in a dispatch center to show the number and address of the telephone being used.

When a 911 call is made from a wireless phone, a signal is sent through the air. The tower that picks up the signal may be near, but it is not enough to tell the dispatcher where to find you. It is like playing “Marco Polo” in the pool, blindfolded with just sound to guide you.

Wireless carriers are required to complete 911 calls even when the cellphone is not activated. Any cellphone that has power and can receive a signal is capable of making a 911 call.

However, a problem arises if the cellphone you are using is not activated, whereby a phone number is not assigned to it. This means if you are disconnected from the dispatch center, you must call 911 back because the emergency operator will have no way to call you.

Unique challenges

For many people, the ability to call 911 for help in an emergency is one of the main reasons they own a wireless phone. While wireless phones can be an important public safety tool, they also create unique challenges for emergency response personnel and wireless service providers.

Because wireless phones are mobile, they are not associated with one fixed location or address. While the location of the cell site closest to the 911 caller may provide a general indication of the caller’s location, that information is not usually specific enough for rescue personnel to deliver assistance to the caller quickly.

New regulations

The Federal Communications Commission has required that all wireless carriers be able to pinpoint the location of a high percentage of all 911 calls, but the rule is coming in phases and there are plenty of exceptions. The FCC considers a call pinpointed if the location is shown to be within 300 meters of the actual location of the caller.

Beginning in 2011, wireless service providers have been required to file with the FCC a list of counties, or portions of counties, that they seek to exclude from the location accuracy requirements. The FCC will permit wireless carriers to exclude counties, or portions of counties, only where wireless carriers determine that providing location accuracy is limited or technologically impossible due to heavy forestation or the inability to triangulate a caller’s location.

Another issue with wireless devices that is coming to the forefront is the ability to text to 911. Although there is work being done to explore solutions, text to 911 is not available now in this part of the country.

Tips for calling 911 from a wireless phone

— Tell the emergency operator the location of the emergency right away.

— Provide the emergency operator with your wireless phone number, so if the call gets disconnected, the emergency operator can call you back.

— Refrain from programming your phone to automatically dial 911 when one button, such as the “9” key, is pressed; unintentional wireless 911 calls, which often occur when auto-dial keys are inadvertently pressed, cause problems for emergency call centers.

— If your wireless phone came pre-programmed with the auto-dial 911 feature already turned on, turn this feature off.

— Lock your keypad when you are not using your wireless phone to help prevent accidental calls to 911. If 911 is unintentionally dialed, speak with the emergency operator because Kenosha law enforcement responds to all 911 calls.

— Consider creating a contact in your wireless phone’s memory with the name “ICE” (In Case of Emergency), which lists the phone numbers of people you want to have notified in an emergency.

The number of 911 calls placed by people using wireless phones has significantly increased in recent years. Following these suggestions will help emergency personnel respond to your location in a timely manner.

Jeff Wamboldt and Ron Francis are Kenosha Police Department Crime Prevention Officers. To inquire about Neighorhood Watch and other safety programs, contact them at 657-3937 or e-mail watch@


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