Why did 911 get the wrong address in Clinton officer’s death? It’s complicated, local expert says

CLINTON, Mo. -- After learning Clinton officers were sent to the wrong house because of an error in a traced 911 call, the biggest question remaining is: How did a call from Windsor end with police at an address in Clinton?

Location: It's one of the first things a 911 operator asks, along with your name and the type of emergency. But no one was on the other end of the call that came in to the Henry County 911 Center on Tuesday night. All the 911 operator could hear was women yelling.

Officer Christopher Ryan Morton was killed that night while responding to that 911 call, originally traced to a Clinton home. When officers entered the home, they encountered 37-year-old James E. Waters, who fatally shot Morton and injured two other officers.

Officer Chris Ryan Morton

But then Wednesday, officials said the Clinton officers were actually sent to the wrong house. Further investigation traced the phone number from the 911 call to a Windsor, Missouri, address instead. It's still under investigation why police were sent to Clinton, not the correct address in Windsor.

But it's likely to be a complicated answer because of the complicated technology behind 911 systems.

"It is built on antiquated technology," said Hassan Al-Rubaie, the 911 technical services manager at Midwest Area Regional Council.

He said when a 911 call comes in from a landline, most of the time the call-taker receives the exact location of the caller. But things are much different when the call comes in from a cell phone, which first goes to a cell tower.

"So there may be a tower that is closer, but all of its resources are in use, so your call would go to another tower," he said. "Or maybe the tower closest to you doesn't have your carrier on it, so it is going to go to where your carrier's closest available tower is."

Windsor is 15 miles from Clinton. It's not yet known if the call came in from a landline or cell phone, but Al-Rubaie said it's possible a call could travel to a tower that far away.

"I wouldn't say it happens all the time, but I have seen it happen throughout my time here," he said.

So how is it that your cell phone can know exactly where you are, but emergency crews can't find you?

"It is a question we get all the time, and really it's two different types of technology," Al-Rubaie said. "So all the apps that you have in your phone that can pinpoint your location if you want to know where the closest coffee shop is -- that is very easy to do. Those programs use other data sources that 911 doesn't have access to."

And getting the funding to improve outdated 911 systems is difficult in some parts of Missouri because the Show-Me State is the only state that doesn't have a wireless funding mechanism for 911 services.

Instead, 911 services in Missouri are funded by taxes assessed to landline phones, which many people have gotten rid of. Eighty percent of the call volume on the MARC region is wireless.

"So it is a huge problem, and a lot of these rural communities aren't able to afford some of these upgrades because they don`t have the funding," Al-Rubaie said.

In fact, there are some parts of Missouri that don't even have enhanced 911, according to Al-Rubaie.

"So even if you were calling from your landline phone, they wouldn't get your location," he said.

But some Missouri lawmakers are trying to change that. House Bill 1456 would make changes to the 911 system in Missouri, including a tax similar to that on landlines.

It just passed in the Missouri House. A date has not been set for the bill to hit the floor of the Senate, but a similar bill has failed many times before.

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