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Calling 911 on cell phone may route call to another area dispatch

Where is your cell phone 911 call going?

POCATELLO, Idaho - "911, what's the address of your emergency?"

That's the first thing 911 dispatch asks, and you better know in case your signal gets lost in translation.

The vast majority of 911 calls are made on cell phones now, and that presents a problem because you don't necessarily get the dispatch center you expect.

When you call 911 from a cell phone, the signal is sent to the nearest cell phone tower, and transferred to the nearest dispatch. But that may not be your city or even your county's dispatch.

First, it's important to understand that cell phones use radio frequency (RF) waves. We went to Clark Wireless Technologies, a company that builds, installs and maintains 911 systems in Eastern Idaho in Western Wyoming. Aaron Clark, general manager, explained that those RF waves transmit to the tower that has a good line-of-sight.

"RF performs like a flashlight," said Clark. "Wherever you point the device is where the RF waves travel. So, wherever the closest tower is, is where the cell phone is going to connect to."

However, that tower may be located farther away from you than the nearest dispatch, especially in mountainous areas or areas near county and state borders. That's why it's important to know your location as best as you can, whether that's telling dispatch the nearest intersection, nearest mile marker or the nearest city.

Clark said while cell phones have made reporting an emergency more immediate, it's not a cell phone that will save your life: it's your knowledge of your surroundings.

"If you can provide that information to the dispatcher they're going to be able to get you help much quicker," Clark said.

Some areas may experience different dispatch responders more regularly based on the number of dispatched. Bonneville County, for example, has one dispatch center for all the cities in the county as well as the county itself. Bannock County, however, has dispatch centers for Pocatello, Chubbuck and the rest of the county.

After speaking with the Pocatello Police, we also learned this problem can go both ways. During the Charlotte Fire, many folks didn't have their cell phones registered with the county to contact in the case of an emergency.

That meant many evacuation calls went to home phones, while many people were at work. So, it could be more likely to get you help in an emergency if your cell phone is registered with your county, as well as allow the county to get a hold of you in case of an emergency you don't know about.

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