High-tech tool helps Michigan agencies find 911 cell callers

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News
Dispatcher Erika Hrynyk demonstrates the RapidSOS system, which shows an incoming 911 call from a cell phone in a more accurate location than traditional methods, at the Macomb County Sheriff's 
 Dispatch Center in Mt. Clemens.

Mount Clemens —  Emergency response agencies across Michigan and nationwide are using new technology to help find wireless 911 callers more quickly, police officials say.

A system called RapidSOS is helping dispatchers pinpoint the location of 911 callers with more accuracy than the previous method of tracking calls by nearby radio tower transmissions, which sometimes could be miles away from the caller.

While landline calls are easier to pinpoint, the latest technology allows a wireless caller’s location to be pinpointed within a radius of 3 meters, while in motion, and for 15 minutes after the call has been disconnected, according to the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office, one of dozens of Michigan police agencies that view RapidSOS as a potential life-saving tool.

Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said his department implemented the system in December and is already seeing its benefits.

In one recent incident, dispatchers took a 911 cellular call from a citizen who was having a seizure. The person gave the correct digits for the address but the wrong street name.

First responders found no one needing help at the address, so the dispatch center used RapidSOS and found a street south of the location with the same digits, where the patient was located. 

“This tool potentially saved minutes of dispatch attempting to call the caller back, risking them not answering and trying to get an updated location,” Wickersham said.

The system allows dispatchers to more accurately identify the location of 911 callers who are unable to speak or lost, he said. 

“The Macomb County Sheriff’s Office continues to seek tools that will improve our abilities and response times,” the sheriff said. “RapidSOS is one of those tools. In the event of a life-threatening situation every second counts.”

The system isn't costing the sheriff's office any additional money because it's interfaced with Smart911, a state-funded online tool that allows users to upload household information to speed response times in case of an emergency.

Police previously relied on triangulation, or information off 911 calls that can be connected to three separate cell towers, to identify where wireless calls originate.

Now RapidSOS has partnered with Apple, Google and Smart911 to enhance tracking by calls made from iPhones with iOS 12 and Android phones with version 4.0 and higher. Users need to be sure their phones are updated with those operating systems but do not have to install an App for RapidSOS to work.

“While the location of the call is received in the traditional way by a dispatch center, enhanced location information is also obtained by a RapidSOS NG911 Clearinghouse,” said Michelle Cahn of RapidSOS.

Cahn said RapidSOS is available in more than 2,000 911 centers, covering more than 200 million Americans, including dozens of police agencies in Michigan.

Eaton County Central Dispatch was the first agency in Michigan to use the system, starting in June 2017. Michael Armitage, director of the county’s 911 system, said it dispatches for eight law enforcement agencies, six EMS units, and 14 fire departments that serve about 108,000 residents in Eaton County.

Armitage said RapidSOS was critical in a rescue last month.

“A female called 911 and was disoriented and unable to give us her location,” he said. “The carrier provided location and plotted her phone in a wooded area. However, the RapidSOS location plotted her phone at a building. First responders were able to locate her at the building — about 250 feet away.”

Armitage believes RapidSOS will “be even more helpful in the text-to-911 environment.”

“Currently when someone texts 911 we only get which side of a cell tower the text came from, which only narrows it down to a few square miles,” he explained. “RapidSOS integration with text-to-911 systems will greatly assist in finding those who may text for help.”

Capt. Mel Maier Jr. of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office said the department hopes to implement the program countywide within the next six months. Its dispatch center services 13 sheriff substations, 11 police departments, 19 fire departments and EMS for the City of Pontiac. 

“We handled more than 520,000 calls last year — 82 percent of them were cellular,” Maier. 

 “We are very excited to have this opportunity to partner with RapidSOS - as have Apple and Android systems - to provide our 911 call-takers with the location of callers when indoors or areas with poor coverage,” he said.

”We have had rescue situations in the past in which a person in a wooded area cannot find their way out," Maier said. "Even with carrier assistance, the limitations within the current cellular system have not provided accurate enough location information."

The Michigan State Police is not pursuing the RapidSOS program “right now”, according to spokeswoman Shanon Banner, who noted the agency has two dispatch centers that serve as primary public safety answering points  – one in Gaylord and one in Negaunee.

“They are both currently working to implement Smart911,” Banner said.


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