Wasted Calls For Help

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WCBS

Panting and screaming, a frantic plea for help after a drive-by shooting crackled over the Cincinnati 911 phone lines.

"I don't know where he's bleeding from," says the scared caller who witnessed the shooting. "I'm scared they are going to come back. And he's been shot."

The caller was on a cell phone and when asked for her location, she did not know. And that made it nearly impossible for 911 operator Jeff Bradley to send help, reports CBS News correspondent Mika Brzezinski.

"Location is the most important piece of information, you know," Bradley says. "And not knowing their location, it's like trying to drive in the dark with no headlights."

And it's not just Cincinnati 911 that's the problem. Emergency call centers around the country are driving blind — unable to identify cell phone callers' locations because they haven't upgraded their call tracking technology.

Here's how it's supposed to work: when someone dials 911 from a cell phone, satellites pick up and relay the data to the nearest emergency call center, where computers display the caller's location, within about a city block's margin of error. But if that cell call originated from an old phone, or the 911 center doesn't have the technology upgrade, all bets are off.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., has worked to get all of America's 911 systems up to par. Still, more than 40 percent of the country's call centers, known as public safety answering points, or PSAPs, are poorly equipped.

"Our 911 system is stuck in the 20th century," Clinton says.

If a terrorist attack happened today, would the country be in the same technological bog we were in during Sept. 11? Clinton replied, "It would depend upon what cell phone you used, what part of the country you were in, whether the PSAP answering your call had the capacity to locate you."

A congressional study just out found that at least four states "collected" the money to fix the problem through phone bill surcharges, but spent it elsewhere instead.

It took almost two minutes, but Cincinnati operator Bradley figured out where the caller was.

"I looked it up in the phone book, in the white pages," Bradley — who was fighting his own battle with cancer at the time, and who lost that fight shortly after talking to CBS News — told us.

It's impossible to know whether that extra time would have made a difference. The gunshot victim did make it to the hospital, but he died soon after.