Can my old, defunct cell phone still call 911?

A Reader with a Very Old Cell Phone Asks if It will Still Work

Calling on a cell phone after a train derailment
A cell phone is a lifeline to help in any emergency. David McNew/Getty Images

Question: Can my old, defunct cell phone still call 911?

A reader sent in this question:

I realized after deactivating my landline service that I no longer had a phone by my bed for any emergencies and putting my cell phone by my bed will certainly begin the unwanted habit of forgetting it at home.  You know, it's just one of those things you know you'll do. 

Sitting in my junk drawer is an old cell phone and now I know I can keep it by my bed, charged, so that if I need to dial 911 I will get through to emergency services.

As of last month this phone would have had to be replaced because it uses old technology.  Does that mean it will be like the scenario where you're not going to reach 911 in the Andes?  Or is 911 on a more basic network that is not defunct?

Answer: Sometimes.

In order for the phone to call 911, it has to have a working signal. It does not have to have a contract with a carrier (meaning you can’t call any other number and can’t receive calls). If you have a phone that will no longer be able to reach a working cell tower, either because you’ve moved to the Andes or because the phone company is discontinuing service, you won’t be able to reach 911 on that phone anymore. Other than the fact that 911 is available with or without a service contract on both mobile phones and landlines, there isn’t any significant difference between calls to 911 and other phone calls.

Knowing that an old mobile phone will call 911 is important for a couple of reasons. First, if you couldn't afford service and had to shut it off, you at least have a way to call 911 in a pinch. Second, knowing that they could accidentally call 911, you shouldn't let kids play with old, working cell phones.

Drawbacks to Old Phones

There are already a few differences between calling 911 on a mobile phone versus calling on a landline. First and foremost, location information is not as reliable on mobile phones. In one example, the dispatcher might not know what floor you're calling from if you're in a multistory building.

Most importantly, a call from a mobile phone might not be routed to the correct 911 center.

Using an old phone without a service contract presents even more challenges. If you’re disconnected from 911, the dispatcher will not have a way to call you back because the phone doesn’t have a number. Plus, older phones often don’t have GPS technology, so the dispatchers don’t know where you are unless you can tell them. Depending on your reason for calling 911 (a stroke, for instance) you might not be able to do that.

Another Way

Other options exist if you don’t want to change where you keep your mobile phone at night. There are some very cool wireless home telephone systems that connect to your cell phone through Bluetooth technology and allow your mobile line to act as your home line. You can find them online or at brick and mortar retail stores.

Using an integrated phone system like this, you can continue to put your phone where you do now and still have an extension by your bed. if you call 911 from your mobile phone or the wireless home system, it will be using your mobile contract to make the call.

The dispatcher will know your name (and possibly address, depending on the dispatcher’s system) and have a GPS hit on your location. Most importantly, if you’re disconnected, the dispatcher can call you back.

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