Last year, the Mohave County Sheriff's Office received 42,416 calls to 911.
Dispatch Supervisor Jody Schanaman estimates that some 70 percent of those calls came from cell phones, which - up until a year ago - the Sheriff's Office was unable to track.
Around $250,000 worth of upgrades, funded by a statewide tax on phone bills, were made to five dispatcher stations at the Sheriff's Office to allow the call center to go from phase zero straight to phase two of cell phone coverage. That meant bypassing the phase where calls are triangulated using carrier towers and going straight to providing dispatchers with a location of where the call is coming from within a distance of up to 300 meters.
Schanaman said incoming cell phone calls are now accompanied by the callback number for the phone along with the longitude and latitude of the location of the phone based on its GPS. Nearly all phones produced after 2002 have GPS capabilities, but that can be turned off by the user, shutting off the locating-capability of 911.
Call back numbers are not provided for prepaid cell phones, however. In the case of Internet calls, the address of origination is shown as the residence to which the computer was originally registered and not the physical location of the computer itself.
Dispatchers got to test out the new system early after its upgrade when multiple phone calls were made to 911 from what sounded like kids. It turned out the kids were making the calls on their cell phones while riding the bus to school.
"It was like a frog hopping on the screen," Schanaman said. "We could see the bus making stops along its route."
Deputies were able to track down the bus and give the kids a lecture on the proper use of 911, which some adults could probably benefit from as well, said Sheriff Tom Sheahan. He said individuals call 911 for everything from asking for weather updates to just wanting someone to talk to. In 1996, then-mayor of Scottsdale Sam Campana was publicly scolded for calling 911 to ask for directions.
But when there are legitimate emergencies, Sheahan said the new technology could mean the difference between life and death. After the upgrades were instituted, the Search and Rescue team were sent out to track down a group of hikers lost in the desert outside of Lake Havasu City. It took rescuers less than two hours to find them when previously it would have taken up to eight hours. In extreme temperatures, a few hours can make all the difference, Sheahan said.
"It's about two things," he said. "Quicker responses and saving lives."