True North Blog

9-1-1 can Easily Track my Cell Phone, Right?

You are out on a hike with a friend when you finally must concede that you are lost.  Of course, you have been trying these last few hours to find the right trail, but the sun is beginning to set and it is starting to get cold.  The prospect, then, of being forced to spend the night in the dark woods has you now more scared than you might otherwise have thought.  But, wait, there is a ray of hope!  You have a cell phone.  You’ll just dial 9-1-1 and those EMS dispatchers will have a rescue team sent to your exact location in a jiffy.  Right?

The reality is … Maybe.

A recent series of studies conducted by Find Me 911 indicates that EMS dispatchers can only trace a mobile telephone’s location only around 33% to 50% of the time.

I don’t know about you, but I find the prospect of only being found in an emergency one-third or one-half of the time a little scary.

911Find Me 911 is a coalition that seeks to ensure that wireless calls to EMS reliably work in today’s wireless age, enabling first responders to quickly and efficiently locate emergency calls placed from wireless phones in all locations.

One of their studies in North Carolina found that nearly half of all such calls received by 911 emergency centers from wireless phones in June 2013 failed to include accurate information about the caller’s location.  Another study in Utah concluded that only a third of such calls could be traced.  By contrast, with a landline, dispatchers can provide first responders with an exact location.

Keep in mind, that these studies focused on cell phones in urban settings, not wilderness settings where tracing a mobile caller can be even dicier.

Being prepared, then, for an overnight, even on a simple day-hike, or being able to handle a medical emergency, might be something to consider before you next head into the Great Outdoors.

Unless, of course, you think that 33-50% are great odds.


Are you interested in learning the basics of wilderness survival, or becoming certified in Wilderness First Aid (WFA) or CPR, then check out our Schedule.

Erik Kulick leaning aginst wall with True North badge on blue shirt

About the Author

Erik is the founder of True North Wilderness Survival School. He is a police officer, EMS provider, a Wilderness EMT, and a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine. He has been featured in national and international media, including CNN, the Associated Press, and Backpacker. To learn more about Erik, visit him on LinkedIn and be sure to follow him on Facebook and YouTube.

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