SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Imagine calling 911 in an emergency situation, but being unable to speak. Many would hope that a dispatcher could find you based on your call, but that’s not always the case.
For one local woman, it wasn’t until she was able to call 911 a second time that she got the help she says she needed. In a WTOC Investigation, Romney Smith uncovered the blind spot when it comes to getting emergency help. In this story, WTOC is protecting the woman’s identity since her legal case against her alleged attacker is ongoing.
On a quiet Savannah street, a young woman we’ll call “Lauren” was forced to protect herself and young daughter when she says her then-boyfriend attacked her. She was able to call 911, and left the cell phone under a pillow.
“I thought that 911 would listen and send somebody,” says “Lauren."
Instead, she got a six-second voicemail she could barely understand saying, “Hello, this is Savannah Chatham Police 911. Call this number if you need police, fire, EMS called, bye.”
Lauren says in her moment of need, she was shocked.
“I was devastated. I had been waiting for someone to come rescue me, and like not only were they taking a long time, they weren’t coming. Like, nobody was coming.”
Lauren says an hour of violence passed until her attacker, who is now in jail on battery and aggravated assault charges, took a break. That gave her the opportunity to call 911 a second time and she was able to give them her address to send help.
WTOC’s Romney Smith took “Lauren’s” concerns to Diane Pinckney, the Director of Chatham 911 Communication Services. Pinckney says there is a reason officers didn’t respond to the first call.
“Unfortunately, we don’t get exact locations from calls originating from cell phones. Police were not dispatched in reference to that particular call. The call taker didn’t give an address so she (911 operator) triangulated the location, which doesn’t give you an exact address,” Pinckney said.
This means your cell phone could prevent you from getting help in an emergency situation since it only figures out the closest tower that cell phone pinged to get approximate - not an exact - location of the 911 caller. Pinckney says it was not in the policy to send an officer to ride up and down the street of a missed call if it’s triangulated to a specific area.
“Lauren” says she contacted WTOC to figure out what happened.
“I want there to be a change in the policy. I don’t want this to happen to someone else. I don’t want someone to call with their one shot and get a voicemail. A voicemail is not going to help you,” says “Lauren."
Because WTOC brought this specific situation to the 911 Center’s attention, change is on the way.
“This particular incident has made it where we’re even revisiting the policy that we just sent out to make sure it’s sound, and to remind our staff that that silent call that you get may be a call for help as well,“ Pinckney said.
The 911 Call Center is now training on a new system called ‘Rapid SOS’ that can find a 911 caller’s exact location.
“Obtaining the Rapid SOS system is relatively new technology that will give us actual concise locations on callers who have smart phones,” Pinckney said.
WTOC asked what the inspiration is behind getting a new system.
“The very dilemma that were talking about right now is the inspiration. We want to make sure that if someone is in trouble, if they have a dilemma going on and they’re not able to speak to us, that were able to use other methods other than verbal conversation to actually have interaction with them and find out what the problem is,” Pinckney said.
The Chatham County 911 Center will switch to the ‘Rapid SOS’ system soon and will be able to locate a cell phone caller’s exact address. However, there is still a blind spot. If you have a really old cell phone, it may not be compatible with the system.
The Chatham 911 Center also recently hired a quality assurance officer who will listen to calls for service and radio transmissions to make sure everyone is following policy.