John Oliver Thinks 911 Needs a Tech Overhaul

Many of the call centers that handle your emergency calls are powered by out-dated technology. John Oliver thinks that’s “fine if you’re describing a Radio Shack, but a little scary if you’re calling a place that handles emergency situations.” He reckons that it’s time things changed.


911—or the thing you call after WebMD fails you, according to Oliver—handles over 240 million calls a year. The people at the other end of the phone are incredible. But creaking infrastructure—as well a lack of cash and not enough staff—is serious, because it means that people can and do die.

In particular, Oliver focuses on the way that 911 calls are located, because the rise in emergency calls made from cellphones appears to be catching the system out. These days, he argues, an Uber can find you better than an ambulance can.


Technology exists that can help. But sadly, despite emergency services wanting better location data, the FCC’s current plans will only demand that carriers can report accurate location data to 911 call centers 80 percent of the time by 2021. That’s 20 percent short of the ideal.

[Last Week Tonight]

Contributing Editor at Gizmodo. An ex-engineer writing about science and technology.

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I worked as a 911 operator for almost 10 years (and still work in the same field, just on the managerial side now). And it is absolutely true. In many departments around the country, the infrastructure is simply too out-of-date, too fragile, and often a simple afterthought at the parent governmental level. Additionally, our propensity for giving up landlines in favor of cell phones has only made it tougher from more than just a locational and technological standpoint, as the revenue generated for 911 is substantially smaller.

Dispatcher burnout is a very real thing, and having to try to save lives and property with failing equipment only contributes further to that. I will say that location technology has improved significantly over the last decade. But that has much more to do with the advancement of cell phones than it does anything else. Unfortunately, most of the newest advancements in CAD, phone, and radio technology are priced out of the range of small departments. Unless the folks in charge of those small areas take a genuine interest and become adept at writing grant requests, they will never actually be able to catch up to current industry trends.

There are positive signs though. One of the big topics at this year’s trade conventions is adopting newer media within communications centers. Some PSAPs are already taking SMS and video messages, and I feel that over the next few years, more will follow suit. Large companies are also starting to work more comfortably on regional levels. For example, my department was able to get onboard with a regional contract for new radio equipment. The discount that we got for being a member of the public safety cooperative in the area allowed us to get what we wanted (and needed you could say), when previously our budget determined that we would not be able to make any of the upgrades to our decade-old system.

Side note of interest: John Oliver jokes about teaching kids to use 911. But in all my days with a headset, kids were some of the best callers to get. While I would never wish for any child to have to go through horrible trauma, they are fantastic on the phone. Often times, they will not understand the gravity of a situation, and as such will not be a hysterical mess. They’ll follow directions exactly, and usually even repeat everything back to the dispatcher. I can’t count the amount of times when a phone would get passed from family member to family member, and the most rational one to speak to was the 10-year old child.