911 Isn't As Reliable As You Would Hope

Americans expect emergency personnel and/or police officers to come to the rescue in life-and-death situations, but John Oliver pointed out how 911 call centers are failing in this week's episode of Last Week Tonight. Because of poor technology, 911 too often can't tell where callers are, and therefore can't send the appropriate help. This leads Oliver to ask: Why can Ubers find you better than ambulances can? "People making emergency calls are on the very short list of things we expect to be found 100 percent of the time," Oliver said. "It's that, the clitoris, and Nemo."

Most 911 centers are hugely underfunded, understaffed, and full of outdated technology ... "which is fine if you're describing a RadioShack, but it's a little scary when you're describing a place that handles life-and-death situations." Today, 70 to 80 percent of 911 calls come from cell phones, whereas they used to mostly come from landlines. In the olden days, it was simple to match your billing address to your landline and figure out exactly where you were, but cell phones have complicated things, and the centers just haven't caught up. How much information 911 gets from cell providers varies a lot, and sometimes they only know which cell tower the call was routed from — a far cry from a person's specific location.

The chances of quickly getting a location ranges from 10 to 95 percent, which exemplifies how big discrepancies are across the country. Last Week Tonight played a clip showing an NBC News reporter calling 911 from the 911 call center itself and asking the dispatcher if they could tell where the reporter was, but they gave him an address that was about a quarter of a mile away. "You never want to be in a situation where you have to tell someone, 'I'm actually inside you right now,'" Oliver joked.

The FCC mandated that location accuracy be improved, telling cell carriers to deliver usable locations for callers 80 percent of the time by 2021. Wireless providers claim to be working on it, but there's no guarantee when the updates will be ready, and 80 percent accuracy still means one out of every five callers won't be found. "The sentence 'In six years, I might not be able to find one out of five of you' is only acceptable if you're speaking to the members One Direction," Oliver said.

It's pretty baffling that 911 has such a hard time finding callers when Facebook, Uber, and even food delivery apps know exactly where a cell phone is. "Even the Domino's app can tell where you are," Oliver said, outraged. "And they've barely mastered the technology to make a palatable pizza."

Images: Last Week Tonight/YouTube