When you call 911, you want help right away.
Nashville and other Tennessee counties and cities are upgrading to a technology that's supposed to pinpoint exactly where you are when you call from a smart phone, like an iPhone or an Android.
The News 4 I-Team discovered the upgrade doesn't work with a major cell service provider, a gap that Nashville’s Emergency Communications Center officials didn't know about until our test.
The system is designed to help in situations like the one Misty West found herself in in January.
West called 911 after someone rear-ended her SUV on the interstate. She didn’t know her exact location.
"There is housing on one side and a scrapyard on the other," West told the 911 center’s call-taker.
The driver who hit her, West said, offered her cash if she didn’t call the police. She later found out that he was a convicted sex offender who was driving without a license.
"I have my gun in my lap, I'm that scared," West told the 911 call taker.
Nashville's 911 center’s new mobile phone tracking technology, called RapidSOS, should have helped pinpoint where West was calling from, but it didn’t.
An analysis by the 911 center showed West’s mobile phone was located using older technology, called ALI, for Automatic Location Information. ALI finds your location by pinging cell phone towers near you.
RapidSOS pinpoints your location through the GPS in your smart phone, the same process that Uber and pizza delivery drivers use.
"The report from the 911 center shows it did not activate in this case," the I-Team told West. “That's scary.” West said.
Michelle Peterson is the assistant director of support services for Metro Nashville’s Department of Emergency Communications. Peterson said she didn’t know why its newer system, RapidSOS couldn’t locate West.
"On a good day, it works. That's what I really like about the RapidSOS," Peterson said.
Nashville’s emergency communications center has been testing RapidSOS since the fall of 2018, but there have been issues getting it fully up and running. ECC decided to upgrade its server in December and continues to trouble-shoot the bugs that have cropped up, according to Peterson.
The I-Team wanted to put the system to the test.
We brought half a dozen or so phones - some Android, some iPhones, even a flip phone - to the 911 center to see if calls we made from right inside the center could be accurately tracked by RapidSOS.
Some phones we tried didn’t have current service, but Michael Bateman head of CAD and tech support for the 911 center, said that didn’t matter, it should work with any phone.
The I-Team tests found that the phones that didn’t have service could be tracked, though not with pinpoint accuracy, by the older ALI system, not the new RapidSOS system.
RapidSOS confirmed to News4 that its system doesn’t work on phones that don’t have a current service plan even though those phones can call 911.
It was news to Peterson.
"What most surprised me is that when the phone isn't activated, you don't have that GPS capability,” Peterson said.
The I-Team found an even bigger problem.
We tested two nearly identical iPhones that both had current service, but on different carriers.
RapidSOS was able to pinpoint the location of an iPhone 6 with service through Verizon. It did work on the same type of iPhone running on the Sprint network.
Bateman, who helped News 4 conduct the test, had no explanation.
“I really don’t know,” Bateman said. “I have to get with the company rep for RapidSOS.”
“So there’s still some bugs?” the I-Team asked.
“Seems to be!” Bateman said. “I definitely will have to call them and find out and have them get back to us.”
The I-Team asked Peterson why an iPhone on Verizon would work, but a phone on Sprint would not.
"I have no idea why. It doesn't matter who the carrier is," she said.
Turns out, the carrier does matter.
RapidSOS’s general manager of public safety Jeff Robertson confirmed its system doesn’t work on certain carriers, and Sprint is one of them.
“Sprint, in particular, cannot send voice and data at the same time. They will be able to in the future, with 5G, or if you were connected to WiFi you would have been fine,” Robertson said.
The problem isn't just in Nashville, it’s across the whole country.
Robertson said Sprint uses an older technology. With Sprint, when you're on a phone call, your phone is not sending data unless you have an internet connection through WiFi.
News4 reached out to Sprint's public relations department but did not hear back.
We found Sprint's quarterly earnings reports published for their investors, and discovered reference to this technology, in this PDF of their 3rd quarter, 2018 Fiscal Update.
West, the woman who was in the accident on the interstate, wasn’t using Sprint. She was on AT&T, which uses a more modern system than Sprint’s.
RapidSOS is a public company. It provides the service for free to 911 centers and make money by selling their location services to businesses like Uber.
RapidSOS will work on both Android phones and iPhones.
If you have an iPhone, you have to be running an updated operating system - iOS 12 or later. To check what iOS you’re running, go to "settings" and "general" and "about" to see the software version.
If you have an Android, you have to run version 4 or later. Go to "tools" then "settings" then "about phone" to check your version.