Outdated and poorly funded, Missouri has one of the worst 911 systems in the country, experts say

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Pull out your cell phone and you can find the nearest restaurant or hotel. Your phone knows exactly where you are.

Now trying calling 911. Chances are you’ll have to explain your location to the 911 operator if you want anyone to find you.

Experts say Missouri has one of the worst 911 systems in the country -- antiquated, poorly funded and under-staffed.

It’s that troubling 911 system that 22-year-old Whitney Baker said she discovered after her mother was reported missing in August 2016.

“We just had this scene playing in our head of her laying in a ditch somewhere and wanting someone to find her,” Baker said.

All she knew was that her mother, Ginger Myers, had called 911 pleading for help the evening before. Myers had been caring for an elderly relative near Poplar Bluff -- about six hours from where Baker and her two sisters were living in Arkansas.

“They told us, 'She said my car is filling up with water,’" Baker said, referring to emergency personal in Butler County, Missouri.

Myers phone went dead less than a minute into the call.

Baker and other family members immediately drove to Butler County to assist in the search for her 44-year-old mother.

“We searched all Wednesday night and Thursday,” Baker said.

After three days of looking, they found her car under water. Her mother was still inside, strapped in her seat belt. It was Myers children who found her -- not the dozens of emergency responders who had focused their search more than 10 miles away.

Nearly two years later, that’s something that still bothers Baker.

“I believe if the 911 system wasn’t like it is, they would have found her body and not us,” Baker said.

Missouri has one of the worst 911 systems in the country, according to a statewide study released last December. The study by the Missouri Department of Public Safety called the system “antiquated,” “under staffed” and “under funded.”

Plus, the state’s 911 system is so fragmented that many county 911 systems can’t quickly communicate with a neighboring county.

“We’re still stuck in the 60s,” said Eric Winebrenner, the 911 director for the Mid America Regional Council, which oversees 911 service in the greater Kansas City metro.

Winebrenner said the Kansas City metro is better than most because neighboring counties have joined forces, pooling resources and allowing better communication among departments.

But statewide such cooperation is unusual.

Sixteen Missouri counties don’t even have a 911 operator. If you dial 911, you will be directed to a seven-digit number. The person who answers that call will have no idea where you are, so be prepared to tell them. They also won’t be able to call you back if your call gets dropped.

In Butler County, where Ginger Myers died, the 911 system is more advanced than most. But -- as in most of Missouri -- 911 can only determine a cell phone caller’s location based on the nearest cell tower. In a rural area like southeast Missouri, one cell tower can cover miles. That’s why emergency responders were searching an area 10 miles away from where Ginger Myers had drowned.

There’s better technology available that could pinpoint a caller’s location within 45 feet. But most Missouri counties don’t have that technology.

“That takes money,” Winebrenner said. “That takes resources, and that’s the crux of the problem in Missouri.”

Although more than 70 percent of 911 calls come from cell phones, Missouri is the only state in the country that doesn’t tax cell phone users for the service. Instead, a significant portion of 911 funding comes from taxes on landline phones -- even though the number of landline users declines every year.

Efforts to pass a statewide 911 cellphone tax have failed in Missouri.

To try and solve the problem, Rep. Jeanie Lauer (R-Blue Springs) is sponsoring legislation allowing each county to put a 911 cell phone tax on the ballot. Then it will be up to the voters to approve the tax.

Although the bill has failed six times, Lauer is confident she’ll get the votes she needs this year. The bill is expected to pass out of committee as early as next week before it heads to the full senate.

"Every year Missouri falls further and further behind and more and more people die,” Lauer said. “That's unacceptable.”

Whitney Baker knows that even if Missouri’s 911 system had been more advanced, the chances her mom would have been saved from drowning is unlikely. It happened too fast. But she knows a better 911 system may have helped officials find her body sooner and saved her family from having to search for her.

“I just don't want this to happen to someone else,” Baker said. “I want the 911 system to be fixed."