Smartphone-enabled location cluelessness hinders Summit County’s 9-1-1 response
Ryan Summerlin January 19, 2013
Deb Edwards normally wouldn’t pick up hitchhikers.
But it was Christmas Day and as she drove along Swan Mountain Road, three young, kind-looking men kindled her holiday spirit.
Instead of offering the standard out-thrust thumbs, they steepled their hands in a gesture of prayer and supplication.
She stopped. They loaded into her SUV, apologizing for the dustings of snow falling on to her seats.
The young men were from France – specifically, the Alps. They were recent college graduates. They were polite. They were charming. It was their first time to Summit County. They had almost no idea where they were.
“I asked them ‘Where are you staying,'” Edwards said. “They said, ‘Oh, in Breckenridge – in the hills.'”
That low level of geographical awareness is common among the thousands of visitors who flock to Summit County every year and rely almost exclusively on GPS-equipped smartphones to get around. That approach usually works fine – until something happens. A broken leg on the slopes. A car accident. A child with an asthma attack. It’s an emergency. Dial 9-1-1.
However, the first question a dispatcher will ask is, “What’s the location of the emergency?”
“If people can answer that question, we can get help to them much more quickly,” said Bill Pessemier, the director of communications for Summit County.
However, 25 percent of callers simply cannot answer that question with any measure of specificity.
I see mountains, they say. Trees.
“In a lot of cases, people really don’t have any idea where they are,” Pessemier said. “If we don’t have that address, it can cause a delay in time, maybe a minute or two or three. People rely on the GPS capability. They don’t realize it’s not as accurate as they think. People still assume that when you call 911, dispatchers know exactly where they are.”
But in an age that is increasingly forsaking landlines – 80 percent of 911 calls now come from cellphones – it is becoming more difficult for dispatchers to ascertain where to send emergency responders.
Pessemier said landlines offer pinpoint data on the caller’s address. However, GPS-enabled smartphones only give dispatchers rough coordinates – usually within 80-100 meters of the actual location.
“That’s good for the backcountry,” said Lisa Hans, a supervisor with the Summit County communications department, “but in the town with condos and businesses, it’s not as helpful.”
Interstate 70 is particularly challenging, Hans said.
“Yeah, we just left Denver; we’re on our way to California,” said Hans, impersonating a typical caller. “We try to narrow it down. Eastbound or westbound? Did you come through a tunnel. Did you pass any towns? We’re going through this process of elimination and that takes time.”
Hans is the first to admit that even she is over-reliant on wayfinding technology.
“When I use GPS in the car, I just listen to the instruction,” she said. “I don’t read the directions. I don’t even know which streets I took. I just do what it says.”
However, she says it is important for tourists and others to begin paying attention to their surroundings.
Hans and Pessemier are now calling on area governments, the lodging industry and ski resorts to begin working together in an education campaign to bolster location awareness for visitors.
Pessemier said efforts are preliminary, and he doesn’t have solutions or the potential costs in mind just yet, but he wants to start the conversation with area communications leaders now, before the next high season.
One idea he has is to improve address signage in heavily populated areas.
“If you walk up and down Main Street in Breckenridge or in Frisco you’d be hard-pressed to find addresses,” he said.
Other ideas include airing public service messages on the radio and address cards for lodge visitors.
Pessemier said the campaign could take at least six months to crank up. He hopes to have something in place for summer.