John Oliver Explains Why 911 Isn't as Reliable as You Thought

John Oliver
Emergency response call centers are understaffed, underfunded and do not have access to common location accuracy technology. YouTube

We all take 911 for granted. It's there, ready when we need it, and by its very nature it will come through for us without fail. I mean, it's 911. Americans place 240 million calls per year to the emergency service dispatcher, for everything from actual emergencies like fires, break-ins and car accidents, to not-quite-emergencies like baby lizards getting stuck in your printer or your backside accidentally dialing the famous three digits as you sit on your phone. The dispatchers will take the good with the bad because that's what they do. Right?

Well, maybe not. On the latest episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver broke down the dire state of America's emergency dispatch centers and—surprise, surprise—some of what the LWT team discovered was pretty shocking.

Location Accuracy

You know how Facebook or Google Maps or Uber can pinpoint your exact location? Emergency response dispatch centers can't do that. They don't have the technology. This was fine when distress calls were coming through landlines, but now that 70 to 80 percent of 911 calls are made with cellphones, call centers are forced to use unreliable information from wireless carriers to determine your location.

This is a huge problem. In 2014, the Federal Communications Commission estimated that over 10,000 lives could be saved annually by improved location accuracy in 911 call centers. As a result, the FCC mandated that wireless carriers deliver usable location information to 911 dispatch centers 80 percent of the time. This sounds like progress until, as Oliver pointed out via a clip from an NBC special, 911 will still be unable to find one out of every five emergency calls.

No Oversight

It's scary how little state governments seem to care about maintaining the efficacy of their emergency call centers. It is a fragmented system with little coordination between dispatch centers. In six states—Nevada, Wyoming, Missouri, Louisiana, West Virginia and New York—there is no entity in charge of 911 centers. Georgia has a committee to oversee emergency response services, but there is no one actually appointed to it. The committee has zero members.

This means that all of the nation's understaffed dispatch centers are essentially on their own, beholden to what little funding state governments give them. As Oliver suggested, Google "understaffed 911 dispatch" and the city you live in, and there will likely be more than a few results. More distressed citizens than ever are being put on hold. (It isn't all the government's fault, though. Americans clog up the phone lines with 84 million 911 butt dials a year.)


The root of all of this is how little funding is allocated to 911 dispatch centers. Yes, there is a 911 service fee on most phone bills and, yes, that money is supposed to go to emergency services. But this isn't always the case. Since 2008, 20 states have diverted 911 funding to other areas of government. Oliver used Tennessee as an example of a state where centers put callers on hold. Another is New York, which took in over $185 million in 911 fees in 2014, $77 million of which the state diverted into its general fund.

America neglects its 911 services because we've never felt they were in danger. They are reliable; they are trustworthy; they always come through when there is an emergency. This is what we have grown up believing, and it's what we will continue to believe until someone we know can't get the care they need. Out of sight, out of mind, out of the scope of the government's purview and thus the government's funding. "We're taught from a young age to take 911 for granted," said Oliver. "Perhaps it's time for that to change"