Peabody Spotlight: WXIA Exposes Systemic 911 Flaws

Brendan Keefe’s Peabody-winning investigation finds rescuers often can’t find victims who call on cellphones

In late December 2014, Shanell Anderson was out before daybreak delivering newspapers in suburban Atlanta when she lost control of her car and drove into a retention pond, becoming trapped in her sinking car.

Anderson knew exactly where she was—she even knew the area’s zip code—and repeatedly told the 911 dispatcher who answered the call from her cellphone. Nonetheless, it took rescuers roughly a half-hour to find Anderson, who by that time was in full cardiac arrest in her sunken car. She later died.

“It just didn’t fit,” said Brendan Keefe, an investigative reporter with WXIA, Tegna’s NBC affiliate. “When I heard the 911 call I knew something had gone terribly, fatally wrong.”

Nearly a year and a half and a dozen stories later, Keefe will be honored in New York Saturday night with a Peabody Award for his investigating into “a major national problem” in the flawed way the 911 system handles calls from cellphones.

The Peabody for his reports—which revealed government oversights and technical shortcomings in supposedly smart phones and in telecommunications infrastructure—is one of three that will be awarded to local broadcasters. The others winners—WTAE Pittsburgh’s investigation into fire response times and WMAQ Chicago’s probe of the Laquan McDonald police shooting—will be profiled Thursday and Friday.

Keefe says he first realized a bigger problem soon after Anderson’s death, when the head of the 911 center that handled Anderson’s call—supposedly one of the best in the Atlanta area—told him that rescuers not being able to find victims “happens everyday.”

Keefe has since revealed that that the 911 system, still using technology compatible with 20-year-old flip phones, fails time and again to get victims’ locations on calls made from cellphones, which are routed through the nearest cellphone tower rather than pinpointing the source.

The chance of 911 getting a quick fix on location ranges from as low as 10% to as high as 95%, according to Keefe.

“After they see the tower address, they are really relying on you to know where you are which is really shocking,” Keefe said. “If Facebook knows exactly where I am posting, if Domino's knows where to deliver pizza and Uber knows where to send a car, then how does 911 not have that technology?”

Keefe says the system can be fixed. In fact, since his stories first ran, inventors have created technology that can be installed in phones that will help emergency dispatchers identify their location.

At the moment, though, the issue is still working its way through bureaucracy, as the FCC, wireless carriers and 911 centers grapple with where the problem lies—and who is responsible for fixing it, Keefe said.

Keefe, however, said he will stay on the story until it is resolved, while boosting awareness in the meantime. “Our reporting has entered the public consciousness where people are beginning to understand that their phone may not tell dispatchers where they are,” he said.

“I’m not moving onto the next story until we get this fixed. We are not letting this go until we are sure found 911 can be called from any device.”