911 vs Google Maps

Two weeks ago today, I called 911. It was an unsettling experience.

Walking by Inwood Hill Park in northern Manhattan, my wife spotted plumes of smoke rising through the trees. There was a fire in the woods, and it was growing.

My call to 911 started at 3:14 p.m. and lasted 3 minutes, according to my iPhone's log. Astonishingly, the operator spent almost all of that time -- probably 2.5 minutes -- trying to find my location on her computer.

Later, using the same information, I did it in 16 seconds. That's the time it takes to type "maps.google.com" into a browser and then "seaman avenue and 214th street nyc."

911 = 150 seconds.

Google Maps = 16 seconds.

Now, this is not a journalistic exploration of why it took so long for the operator to locate me. It is merely my experience. But it's startling enough that I think it is worth a careful recounting. It seems New York City doesn't release 911 calls as a matter of course, though I hope to get mine for a precise transcript of what happened. But the night of the call, I did my best to write down what happened:

• When the operator first answered, I said there's a fire in the woods "in Inwood Hill Park at Seaman Avenue and 214th Street." The park is big, and the fire was across a baseball field in the woods, but it was visible from I was standing and two entrances are nearby. So where I was standing seemed a good location to report.

• The operator asked me if I meant East 214th Street, and I said no, West 214th Street. (For what it's worth, Seaman Avenue doesn't cross East 214th Street.)

• The operator said she couldn't pull up that intersection, eventually asking me if she had spelled Seaman Avenue correctly: S-e-a-m-a-n. Yes, I said, that's right.

• She said to me again that it "wasn't coming up" but kept trying.

• I suggested another cross street, Isham Street, and she said, "In the Bronx?" No, I said surprised, Manhattan.

• That fixed it ... she was able to find my location.

• She then asked me to hold while she connected me to another operator. After several rings, she verbally conveyed my information to the second operator, mistakenly saying "the Bronx" -- which I corrected as she caught herself, "Manhattan!"

Three minutes.

A fire engine arrived a short time later and quickly got the fire under control.

Here are several related searches on Google Maps, all of which return results in less than a second:

"inwood hill park nyc" returns a pin on the west side of the park -- which isn't where the fire was. A fire truck going there would have been misdirected. But it's clearly in Manhattan. And the resulting map would have been a good starting place to work with me to pinpoint my location: "OK, I see Seaman Avenue running along the park ... were exactly from there?"

"214th street and seaman avenue nyc" returns a pin exactly where I was standing. No question about Manhattan or the Bronx.

"seaman avenue and east 214th street nyc" does the same thing, correcting to West 214th Street.

"seaman avenue bronx" returns a pin at 207th Street and Seaman Avenue, correctly in Manhattan, near the entrance to the park -- and, in this case, in sight of the smoke.

WNYC has done some good reporting on 911, but we never had such a concrete example of address confusion. I wonder if other people are having the same problem.

4 responses
You might find this example from Australia of interest: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/chopper-crews-saved-by-google-maps-durig-que...
In my old neighborhood in Miami, people got the streets confused with streets on the other side of the highway (which ran along the border of the neighborhood). Not just 911, but post offices, food delivery as well. They recently changed the street names to try to prevent this.
Vaguely recalling a few different stories of distress calls from the water -- teenagers off of City Island in the winter? The 911 system couldn't process at all, to tragic results.

Years ago, I came upon someone who'd been knocked unconscious on the Williamsburg Bridge (she was fine in the end -- some broken bones, but those heal.) and called for help, we spend a discouraging amount of time trying to explain to the operator that we were half way across the bridge on the foot path. Finally we sent someone to meet an ambulance on Broadway and Bedford. I'm assuming things happen in cars on the bridges all the time. It totally mystified me that they couldn't figure out where we were.