911 Dispatchers play guessing game trying to find caller's location

BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) "What we're finding is people often times don't know where they are, and that's a challenge for us," says Cullen Peltier, director of the Brown County Public Safety Communications Department.

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If you've ever called 911, you know what to do -- you tell dispatchers your emergency and where you are.

But Brown County dispatchers say not enough people are giving that second piece of key information because they think their smartphone will do it for them.

They want callers to know that's not always the case.

"Sometimes we'll spend two or three minutes on a call trying to get a precise location for the person. We have to go over and over again trying to get where they are," says Peltier.

An emergency, when every second counts, is not the time for a guessing game trying to identify your location, but Peltier says it happens frequently in Brown County.

Many of the problems come from 911 calls on highways or interstates when people don't know where they are.

"They'll be driving, and a lot of times they won't even know if they're on the northbound or southbound lane of the highway," he says.

But many times people won't even give a location, assuming dispatchers already know it.

"Oh absolutely! That's what people believe in this day and age, that their phones will give them exact locations and we're going to get them to the precise point that you're at. But there's challenges with that. Sometimes the phones won't plot exactly correct or it may take a few minutes to plot, or they may have their location services turned off," says Peltier.

Every phone and carrier provides different details, he says.

Sometimes dispatchers get only a rough location near a cell tower. Other times they can get pinpointed locations, but it can take seconds or minutes to find that.

"You can't rely on that alone. Knowing where you are, when you call, is the most helpful thing we can have," Peltier says.

On highways, he urges drivers to remember mile markers and landmarks.

Peltier says they see the most problems from people calling in accidents on highways and interstates.

If dispatchers don't know an exact location, or a mile marker, they don't know which police, fire or rescue crews to send.

That could mean delayed response times.

"If you see an accident, try to get some landmarks. Mile markers are real good tool for us, but other landmarks that you can pinpoint for us where it is," advises Peltier. "The best tool for us is the person telling us precisely where they're at."