Weighing the Need for a Landline in a Cellphone World

Photo credit:The New York Times

The government estimates that 38.2% of households in the U.S. don’t have a landline phone. So, what happens when there is an emergency and cell service is down? A group of emergency professionals from California brought the issue of dialing 911 from mobile phones into the spotlight after finding that a caller’s location wasn’t always readily available for emergency responders. Landline phones are better for calling 911 because they make it easier for dispatchers to locate you by providing your address.

When you dial 911 from your cellphone, the call is routed through a cell tower, so the dispatcher only receives the address of that tower and your mobile number. While they get a general idea of your location, it takes precious seconds to pinpoint exactly where you are.

Trey Fogerty, director of government affairs for the National Emergency Number Association, explains, “There can be problems if you are deep inside a building where the signals don’t penetrate well. Or you can be in an urban canyon. GPS doesn’t work that well with lots of tall buildings around.” Danita Crombach, president of the California chapter of the National Emergency Number Association, says that people might not realize they are harder to find if they can’t describe where they are. “I think people have a false sense of security when they dial 911,” Crombach says. Phone services that are internet-based, such as Vonage, are not available when the power goes out, but traditional landlines use older technology that allows them to work during power outages.

Since cordless phones have batteries that need to be charged to use them, using a corded landline is a good idea. However, some phone companies do sell batteries that can provide extra hours of talk time for emergencies. If you have a choice in an emergency, for best results, try calling 911 from a landline instead of your cellphone.

The New York Times, 1/18/14

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