Bethel police unable to trace cellphone calls to 911

The Bethel Police Department’s 911 system cannot trace calls from cellphones. Callers need to tell them exactly where they are. (Google Maps screenshot)

One night last December, D.K.’s husband started drinking. A few drinks in, he started to punch her.

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“I was thrown onto the floor a few times, and into the wall,” D.K. said. She remembers grabbing her cellphone and calling 911. “I just had a few minutes to dial 9-1-1 and toss my phone in the closet,” she said. “I thought I could throw my phone and they could hear me screaming for help.”

She fought back against her husband and tried to put him in a choke hold that her dad and brother had showed her. When her husband saw that she had called the police, he ran from the house.

D.K. said that she chose to talk to KYUK in order to raise awareness about domestic violence, which is too often suffered in silence. When her husband ran out of the house she called 911 again and officers came to help her, but the first time D.K. called 911 the police didn’t show up. The Bethel Police Department can’t track a caller’s location from a cell phone, so they wouldn’t have known where she was.

That technological lapse may have put people at risk. If she had known that Bethel PD couldn’t track 911 calls from cell phones, D.K. said that she might have behaved differently that night. “I probably would’ve tried to hide and stay on the phone,” she said.

According to the Alaska Department of Public Safety, over 70 percent of today’s calls to 911 are made with cellphones. The Bethel Police Department has been trying to fix their system so that it can track those calls, but the upgrading process has proven bureaucratic.

Acting Police Chief Burke Waldron said that the department updated its 911 system about six months ago so that it can receive exact GPS coordinates from cellphones. According to Dispatcher Natalie Hayes, the problem is GCI, which needs to update its own equipment for the system to work. Hayes said that they requested that GCI make that upgrade last summer, but GCI spokesperson Heather Handyside said that the company has no record of receiving the department’s letter, and didn’t know it was an issue.

Regardless, the Bethel Police Department is still only able to get a general sense of where callers using cellphones are. To demonstrate just how big a problem this can be, Hayes asks me to take out my phone. We’re sitting in the Bethel Police Department, near her desk, where Hayes monitors calls on four different computer screens.

My call appears on one of her monitors. “As you can see,” says Hayes, “all I have is your ‘no record found’ and your phone number.” It can’t determine my location, even though I’m sitting right next to her.

“I can call you back,” Hayes says. “But if you don’t pick up, or if something’s happened to you, there’s nothing I can do.”

Bethel is far from the only community in Alaska with this problem, even though the technology exists to solve it. According to the Alaska Department of Public Safety’s John Rockwell, 911 systems in a lot of Alaskan communities don’t have cellphone location services, including towns on the road system. “And that would be a large, large percentage of the state that we’re talking about,” he said.

The irony, said Rockwell, is that the state of Alaska played a key role in creating 911 in the first place. U.S. Senator Ernest Groening was instrumental in starting the system back in the 1960s, and the second 911 call center ever implemented in the country was in Nome.

Through the course of KYUK’s reporting on this issue, GCI got in touch with the Bethel Police Department. Spokesperson Heather Handyside said that they’re assessing whether the department’s system was properly updated, and will then upgrade their own technology. That process could take months.

Until it’s fixed, Bethel Police Dispatcher Natalie Hayes has some advice: tell your 911 dispatcher exactly where you are.