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Cougar attack exposes weakness in wireless 911 calls

Unlike Uber of Lyft, 911 doesn't have access to your exact location because they don't pay for it. Instead, phone operators will request a rebid, which will ping the nearest cell tower to give dispatchers more information about the location of the call.

SPOKANE, Wash. – A recent cougar attack near Seattle exposed a significant weakness in wireless 911 calls.

Too often, emergency workers have trouble finding your exact spot, especially if you’re making a 911 call from a remote area.

Unlike Uber of Lyft, 911 doesn’t have access to your exact location because they don’t pay for it and wireless companies are not required to provide it. Instead, phone operators will request a rebid, which will ping the nearest cell tower to give dispatchers more information about the location of the call.

But when you get out into remote areas, the number of these cell towers decrease significantly. In some cases, the nearest tower could be miles away from where you are making the call, which could cause problems for those hiking or camping.

On May 19, 31-year-old Issac Sederbaum made a 911 call after he and his friend SJ Brooks, 32, were attacked by a mountain lion while they were riding their mountain bikes in King County near North Bend.

While Sederbaum was able to get on his bike and flee, Brooks was attacked and killed while trying to run from the cougar.

Sederbaum called 911 after he saw his friend getting attacked. His third 911 call gave dispatchers a general idea of his location.

Previous story: Cyclists tried to scare cougar off before it attacked, killing 1

Because he was in a remote area with few cell towers, it was difficult for operators to get Sederbaum’s exact location and slowed response time. To make things worse, Sederbaum was making the calls while riding on his bike, racing for help.

There has been some debate over privacy rights and whether or not 911 should be allowed to track a phone during an emergency. But as of right now, emergency dispatchers can only get the most accurate location by questioning the caller about land markers nearby and other correlating information.

Spokane Police recommends that you study hiking area before heading out on a trail just in case of an emergency.

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