Question re 911 calls

I am technologically backward, hence this question: When someone makes a 911 call, does the 911 operator see the location? I mean, does the phone signal include coordinates?

I am asking because during group paddles I organize, with many beginners taking part, I try to talk a little safety at the lunch break. It occurred to me that people on organized paddles may push off from the bank with only the vaguest idea of where they are, other than the name of the lake or river. The participants trust the organizer to get them out and back – why should they bother to know where they are?! But if one of them made a 911 call from the river (because I keeled over), wouldn’t he/she need to describe where on that river he was in relation to a known landmark – such as “2 miles upstream of the Bynum dam”? Knowing roughly where you are seems of a piece with looking back at the launch site so you’ll remember what it looks like on the return – even if you’re not the trip organizer.

Anyway, I have no idea if cell phones locate you for the rescuers. I’d like to know.

In our kayak club we preach the common adventurer model, but I don’t know if beginners understand how much attention they need to pay to what’s going on. Thanks for any responses.

G in NC


actually - maybe

– Last Updated: Aug-14-12 2:26 PM EST –

Not all wireless phones have GPS systems, and some with them may not have the GPS on (I keep mine off to save battery life). So in these cases, the 911 operator likely only knows what cell phone tower is receiving the call. This would get them to within a few miles.

Someone providing an accurate description of Location to the operator the location is the best route to getting the rescue folks there faster.

Keep in mind, the operator answering the call likely is not familiar with the waterway. In my area, the California Highway Patrol answers the calls. They are used to street addresses or highway mileage markers. Paddlers may know what "the cove by mushroom rock off of Pillar Point" means, but the CHP likely won't.

Agree on the maybe
It depends on the phone, how the user has it set, GPS coverage, how the 911 call center/local dispatch is set up, and a few other variables.

Even if 911 gets coordinates, the first responders may not be equipped to use them. GPS units and topo maps are not universal, especially with small volunteer fire departments.

If you can keep track of where you are on the water relative to landmarks, that’ll help the response.

on soapbox…

I work with someone who heads a wilderness search & rescue team, and have participated in a few searches & carry-outs. We see a steadily increasing number of people who think that in case of trouble they can phone for help, and in a few minutes good-looking medics will be rappelling down from a helicopter. That’s not how it works in rural NH. There are NO dedicated air rescue assets, and it can take hours to complete the initial investigation and get a search team assembled. That’s what folks should be planning for.

…off soapbox

Thanks, Mint and Peter
I read the government guide. It says callers should still report their location. The lat/long thing isn’t universal on phones yet.

Thanks, guys, for your help.


Not in my experience
Having had to call 911 on the water (both on open water and on the river)I can attest to the fact that 911 (in Seattle) does not have a location come in from a call. Additionally, 911 cannot activate a rescue response for the USCG directly.

911 Won’t Save You
If someone is pinned underwater or trapped in a hydraulic YOU have just a couple of minutes to save the person.

I think it’s a comforting thought for people from urban areas to call 911, but realistically on rivers and on the Ocean, it’s up to you to provide your own rescue and safety.

What folks should be planning for
Angstrom, do you have something specific in mind about what paddlers should be planning for, or just general common-sense stuff such as knowing a lot of first aid and carrying emergency shelter? What’s the thing you wish most of those people would do while they’re waiting for the good-looking medic to rappel down out of the sky?


Seadart, point well taken
We have to know what to do. However , if someone is in a diabetic coma or having a heart attack, I guess we do our best to keep them alive and call 911. Not on the ocean. On the local lake and rivers where I paddle.

I make a point of asking at state parks where I camp whom to call in an emergency on the water. So far it’s been 911. But I realize it would be the Coast Guard down at the coast.


When I called on the river, it was to report a body and the river was in the city.

Some things that might help
1. Be sure everyone knows the name (road number, bridge name, or park name) of the launch site for reference if they have to make a call.

2. Identify any road crossings, parks, marinas etc as you pass them so paddlers will know that they are downstream of “xxxxx” if they call.

3. If possible give people an approximate idea of your expected paddling speed and let everyone know your starting time for the trip. By using elapsed time and approx speed they can report an approximate miles downstream from the launch.

4. Pre-launch map review. Go over your expected route with everyone before launching. Point out road crossings and landmarks with the river mileage and even your expeced time for arriving at these locations. I find most people really like getting a kind of overview of the trip. If they have to make a call they can at least tell 911 operator “we are between xxxx and yyyy on the river”.


uncommon sense
We’d be delighted to see basic first aid, and being able to stay warm, dry, hydrated and fueled for a few hours. The ability to navigate, communicate, and signal is a huge plus.

You get folks out in t-shirts on a nice summer day, and all it takes is a few splashes, the sky clouding over, and a breeze picking up to start trouble. An extra layer or two is easy insurance. Know the signs when someone’s getting cold, because they’re more likely to make bad decisions. Denial is one, as is body posture(hunched shoulders, crossed arms), and the “umbles” – mumbles, stumbles, fumbles, grumbles.

A light source is good. We’ve made several trips up the hiking trails of the local state park to “rescue” folks who started late and ran out of daylight, and were trying to hike down by the light of their cell phones. I know someone whose planned solo paddle took much longer than the guidebook time because they had to drag over a lot of downed trees in the river, and they ended up finishing after dark without being equipped for it.

Accidents can happen to the best prepared. But being prepared helps keep the problem from growing bigger than the original incident.

Situational Awareness +

– Last Updated: Aug-14-12 3:48 PM EST –

EACH individual kayaker should be responsible to
"themselves" first and then others in the group.
Trust yourself to save yourself is a good motto.

That means knowing where you are without having
to ask others about your approximate location.

Sometimes you are "it" with no one left to assist
as others are injured or elsewhere.

Relying on technology like cellphones, gps, etc.
is a sad secondary crutch when playing outdoors.

Situational awareness/pre-launch map

– Last Updated: Aug-14-12 4:50 PM EST –

Mark, I only recently started showing a map before the group launched. I am encouraged by your comment to do it more. A map doesn't just show where you're going; it also provides context -- why here instead of somewhere else, where we are in relation to other more familiar spots.
Situational awareness is exactly what I want group members to have. Then it's less about me as organizer and more about each of them understanding where they are and what's happening. I wish I'd thought of that phrase myself. Develop situational awareness -- and trust your instincts!
One thing I should have added to my original post: I live in a very populous part of my state. It's pretty high-tech when it comes to the way rescue personnel are equipped. There's also old-tech stuff around in our rivers -- the remains of 19th-century locks and dams, plus "modern" ones (90-year-old hydro dams, some no longer generating and just sitting there as big hazards). Old tech and high tech came together a few years ago when a much-admired author of a paddling guide had a horrific accident at one of those dams. Attempting to land ashore to portage, he was swept over. He was helicoptered out to a local hospital, which saved his life -- he had multiple fracturees including, I think, his neck. He paddles again, and we all quote his guidebook like the Bible.
But don't get me started on the local TV station showing helicopters plucking paddlers out of trees in flooded rivers -- and then using the exciting footage to promote the station. Gasoline on the flames for thrill seekers. Cheers. Cautiously,

Cell Phones
The cell phone is often useful, but generally not for the initial rescue and evacuation. If someone is expecting you, it is a great way to communicate that you had a little trouble and you’ll be an hour or two later than expected. If you need a first aid kit or a change of plans to get someone help, it lets you organize that well before you get to shore.

In most situations where the victim can be moved, it is only useful to let the medical personnel know when and where to expect you to show up.

As a tool to communicate “the plan” and any immediate needs, the cell phone is fine, but it obviously shouldn’t be your first thought in an emergency on the water where it might take hours to find and rescue someone. In general you should have the knowledge and equipment for first aid, rescue, and extraction so you can be pro-active in emergencies.

Jim $0.02

Angstrom, I agree
Actually all of your points should be common sense for us kayakers.

(I can’t imagine hiking by the light of a cell phone!)

Thanks for these points.



Thanks for the link. Good article.

Key Point
And that is a key point, that many PLBs and such don’t allow direct communications between the victim and rescuer. Think how much effort could be saved with voice or text capabilities.

In areas where you have cell coverage, the cell phone is a decent device to communicate the nature of an emergency or just let someone know you’re okay and going to take longer than expected.

The mentality that “If we have any trouble, we’ll just call for help on the cell phone” as a first response is a problem – that should be more like Plan C or Plan D.

when you make a 911 call, the gps is always used. You cannot turn it off. You just dont get a choice.

If it does not have a signal because you are in a ravine, or urban canyon, or in a basement, then the nearest tower is displayed.