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Smart911: A Dangerous and Distracting Delusion

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It's well-known amongst dispatchers that, today, it's harder than ever for emergency responders to locate 911 callers.

This problem has tremendous implications for emergency callers. The consequences of using a mobile phone to call for help are so dire that there's now even an entire website purportedly dedicated to tackling this issue. Here's a description from the Smart911 website:

Today, 9-1-1 Can’t Find You

Over 80% of calls made to 9-1-1 come from mobile phones. When you dial 9-1-1 from a mobile phone, the 9-1-1 call takers have very little information to help you – only your phone number and a very general sense of your location.

This is a serious problem in an emergency when seconds count, particularly if you or your loved ones have medical conditions, or are unable to safely speak.

The Solution is Smart911.

No! No, no, no! Everything was so perfect and true, until the very last sentence. Smart syndrome strikes again! It's so blatantly obvious when the industry tries to push crap in a gift box these days. All they need to do is call it "smart", give it a fancy name, and gullible consumers will line right up!

To spare you the misery of going to the Smart911 page and trying to read between the lines, Smart911 is a service targeting mobile users that can provide dispatchers with information about you from a profile that you provide in advance to them (just in case). We'll ignore any privacy implications this might raise. The real problem is that it doesn't work.

The headline on the Smart911 page reads: Smart911 Saves Time And Saves Lives

This claim isn't necessarily wrong, but it's certainly misleading. A more accurate headline would read: Smart911 Saves Time And Saves Lives, but Not as Much Time Nor As Many Lives That Would Be Saved if Everybody Used Landlines to call for Help. A bit long, but you get the point.

It's very distressing and alarming to see a campaign like Smart911 actually fueling the fire that is today a general lack of information about emergency callers. Instead of getting to the crux of the problem and promoting real solutions, Smart911 is again doing what is akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic: that is, playing right into the bad habits that people have and trying to work with that, rather than try to get people to change their bad habits. If you can beat 'em, join 'em.

Unfortunately, when it comes to emergencies where every second counts, this isn't good enough, and this kind of philosophy — which is delusional and misleading at best and downright dangerous and irresponsible at worst — should not be tolerated, particularly from agencies that claim to be promoting "public safety".

A profile about callers will not be of much use unless you are actually in the location that you've manually associated with your mobile. After all, if you're at home, there's no reason not to just use the landline and get a better response.

Smart911 thinks they can improve emergency response information by relying on YOU to manually add your location information to your Smart911 profile. But the entire point of mobile phones is that they are, well, mobile. So what good is this, if the it might not accurately reflect your location anyways? It's even worse than relying on GPS coordinates that could be 300 meters off!

Smart911 is yet another red herring, along with "smart" meters and "smart" phones and purportedly "smart" decisions that, simply put, could not be dumber. It's outrageous that this kind of deceptive and misleading promotional is allowed to dissuade people from finding real solutions to this problem. The Sacramento Police Department tells the bleaker but more accurate truth about 911 calls as it is:

HOW DO YOU KNOW MY ADDRESS AND PHONE NUMBER WHEN I CALL FROM A LANDLINE PHONE?

We have what is called "E911" or enhanced 911 capabilities for incoming landline calls at our Communications Center through a link to local telephone company computers. When we answer the 911 line, a computer display shows the billing name, address, and number of the telephone on the other end.

CAN YOU TELL MY ADDRESS WHEN I CALL 911 FROM MY CELLULAR PHONE?

All cellular telephones manufactured after 2001 are equipped with the ability to identify the location of where the cellular telephone call was placed. Understand there could be a delay in obtaining the specific latitude and longitude coordinates, due to the wireless signal and latency in the wireless system. The dispatcher will still ask you to confirm your location when on the line. — City of Sacramento

The only way to reliably call for help with accurate location information is to call from a landline, period. No "app" or "service" can bypass the inherent limitations of using technology that was not designed for such purposes. Rather than promoting false solutions that only continue to perpetuate the myth that perhaps there exists some way to use mobiles safely and to use them for emergency calls, public officials and other agencies alike need to get with the times, face the facts, and promote real and meaningful solutions instead. It could be as simple as hiking the 911 surcharge taxes on mobiles as an excise tax and giving landline customers a discount, or as comprehensive as ensuring all Americans have access to payphones in public areas so that civilians can call for help using a landline no matter where they are.

That is the real solution. Don't let anything else masquerade as a "solution" or fool you into believing it's a viable alternative to a landline for emergency calls. When lives are on the line, the only acceptable line is a landline.

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