For 911 calls, is a cell phone as safe as a landline?

Last reviewed: January 2011
January 2011 issue cover This article appeared in
January 2011 Consumer Reports Magazine.
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Illustration by Eva Tatcheva

As Americans increasingly communicate wirelessly, some 60 percent of the nation's 240 million 911 calls are placed through cell phones. A 2010 Consumer Reports National Research Center survey of more than 2,000 subscribers who made at least one 911 call in the past year reveals that for 71 percent of emergency calls from a cell phone, no other type of phone was available.

That's largely because emergencies often occur away from home—say, after a car accident—but 12 percent of ConsumerReports.org subscribers and about 25 percent of Americans now have no landline in their home and use only cell phones. That raises concern about the relative reliability of emergency calls placed through cell phones vs. landline phones. Dropping a landline can be penny-wise, but could it be pound-foolish if you need to call 911 from home?

Not necessarily. Overall, we think that dropping your home landline and making all calls—including 911 calls—on a cell phone is generally a safe bet, based on our analysis and data from our survey. These considerations can help you decide whether it's worth the risk to cut the cord:

But with landline and VoIP 911, operators were significantly more likely to find callers by determining the location of the phone. More than one-third of landline and VoIP users were located in that manner compared with only 7 percent of cell callers. Landline and VoIP 911 give the operator your home address, including an apartment number if it appears on your phone bill. With cellular, operators see only geographic coordinates.

With all phone technologies, the operator asked respondents for their location at the start of the call in at least three of every four calls, perhaps if only to verify the address on the screen on landline and VoIP calls. But if you can't speak—if you're incapacitated or distraught, for example—it's clearly a huge advantage if your address automatically shows up on the operator's screen.