Valley Communications Center: Cell phones not always reliable when calling 911

Valley Communications Center 911 dispatchers are relentless in their efforts to assist in emergencies, but technology sometimes hampers progress.

The dispatch center sends police, firefighters and medics to Auburn, Renton, Tukwila, Kent, Federal Way and several other smaller towns south of White Center to the Pierce County border. The center is owned by multiple partner cities and receives approximately 600,000 calls per year and 120 calls per person per each 10-hour shift worked, Valley Communications supervisor Vonnie Mayer said.

But one should not assume that a call placed to 911 will give dispatchers all the needed information to adequately and quickly respond to the emergency. Cell phones make locating a person harder, Mayer said.

“I love my cell phone, but it’s not as approximate as they’d like you to believe,” she said.

When a call is placed from a landline, Valley Communications is able to view the address from which the call is placed. But cell phones do not work this way. Signals bounce off the nearest cell site tower and an approximate location of the caller is provided to the dispatch center.

Depending on the cell phone carrier and the phone’s technology, the actual location of someone in need can be feet or miles from that relayed to 911, Mayer said. If the person is unable to provide an address, dispatchers’ jobs can get tough. They must use other means for locating the caller.

“We are little detectives at times,” Mayer said.

She referred to the September 2007 incident in Maple Valley, when Tanya Rider, 33, went missing after her vehicle left the road and traveled down a steep ravine off State Highway 169 near Renton. Rider used her cell phone to call for help, but the technology provided emergency responders a location three to five miles from the actual crash scene, according to a Sept. 28 Associated Press article. She was eventually located by King County Sheriff’s Office investigators eight days later.

Tracing the phone number back to its last registered address is a first step in trying to find the caller, Mayer said. But this does not always work. Some people forget to update their customer information with their phone carrier when they move. Others, like Rider, are not calling from home.

“We are very quick. We are very concise,” Mayer said. “However, we have to have a good address.”

If the caller stays on the phone, dispatchers may ultimately ask the caller to describe the surroundings, Mayer said. Any detail helps. Pay attention to road signs and landmarks when in unfamiliar territories, she said. Valley Communications employees do not give up easily, but their attempts to locate a person calling from a cell phone are not always successful.

“We will go until we’ve exhausted everything,” Mayer said. “Sometimes we find people. Sometimes we don’t.”

Contact reporter:


On Sept. 5, the police department began its Citizen’s Academy, an eight-week program designed to educate the public on how Federal Way police operate. In the next few weeks, The Mirror will explore what it takes to be a cop.

A look into patrol, traffic enforcement, criminal investigations, the Valley Communications 911 center, K-9, and narcotics and vice operations will be explored. Keep reading for more stories on who Federal Way’s police are and why they do what they do.

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 28
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates