As a Nineveh woman ran up the road near Hants Lake, she held her cellphone in the air, hoping to get a signal so she could call 911.
Hope Nutt had just witnessed a head-on crash, and the driver was hurt.
Another person who stopped, a nurse, was trying to help the driver and told her to call 911.
But the accident was in a well-known cell service dead zone, so Nutt had to rush up the road to make a call that would summon police, firefighters and medics.
The man later died from his injuries. Nutt said she doesn’t know if the minute she spent running would have mattered in that case, but in a fire or heart attack, seconds can make a difference.
“I don’t know if the man would have lived if things had gone more smoothly. Emergency people tell you time counts,” she said.
Residents and fire departments also said service can be spotty in other rural areas such as Peoga Road south of Trafalgar, south of Center Grove High School near Whiteland and Morgantown roads and on roads in the southwest corner of the county near Morgantown.
Large buildings, such as schools or warehouses, or buildings with thick walls can block cell signals, so people might need to walk outside to make an emergency call or find a landline, county 911 director Mike Watkins said.
Bad cellphone service not only limits how fast a person who needs help can call for police or firefighters, it also hinders emergency workers’ ability to communicate with dispatchers and bogs down the county emergency radio channels with messages.
Emergency responders have computers in their vehicles with wireless network cards that connect through the same cell service people use to browse websites on a smartphone. Those computers allow a police officer to check if a driver’s license is suspended. They let firefighters or ambulance personnel click a button to notify dispatchers that they’re en route to a fire or medical call. In the places around Prince’s Lakes and Nineveh, where people can’t even make a phone call, the computers rarely work, Nineveh Fire Chief Rick Woehlecke said.
Even in White River Township, where cell service is reliable, data cards connect only about half the time, White River Township Fire Chief Jeremy Pell said. The computers require a better data connection than making a call on a phone, so getting a stable connection can be difficult.
When police, firefighters and medics can’t use their computers to update their status on routine runs, such as when they leave the station or when the arrive on scene, they instead have to talk over the radio. If too many people are trying to use the radio at one time, such as on a stormy day where there are multiple calls, they might get a busy signal and have to wait to speak, Bargersville Fire Chief Jason Ramey said.
That could delay the response, such as when firefighters arrive at a house fire and need help from other fire departments, he said.
Using the in-vehicle computers isn’t critical to police officers, firefighters or medics doing their jobs, but it does speed up communication when it’s available, Watkins said.
Radio coverage is stable almost everywhere in the county, so responders can still communicate that way when needed. If the system is overloaded, responders also can switch to a direct connect, similar to walkie-talkies, and communicate with each other, instead of broadcasting the message through the entire county, he said.
As cellphone providers increase coverage or add data capacity in the county, callers will have an easier time getting help and emergency workers will be able to use their computers more, Watkins said. But landline phones, a new text-to-911 service and emergency radios all help to fill in the gaps in dead zones, he said.
Even with dead zones, mobile technology has improved response times compared with past decades, Pell said.
“There are pluses and minuses with all technologies. We’ve taken from having to run to a neighbor’s house to call. Now we have the capabilities of immediately being able to call, but now we rely on it,” he said.
Verizon wants to put up a new cell tower in Nineveh on land owned by Nutt. She’s backed the company because the boost to local coverage is needed, she said. She can rarely make a cellphone call from inside her house and has seen firsthand how poor coverage can affect people in an emergency.
The available cell service can get overloaded when too many people are trying to use it. During a fatal house fire in Nineveh in November, people couldn’t make calls when a fiberoptic line was burned and several residents were trying to make calls and send pictures, she said. When tornadoes hit Camp Atterbury and Edinburgh, phones also got jammed as friends and family were all trying to call people in the area to see if they were OK, she said.
The closest cell tower to the area is at Johnson County Park, but nearby hills and valleys make it harder to catch a cell signal, Woehlecke said. When Nineveh Fire Department helps with fire runs in Brown County, even radio service can get spotty because of the terrain, he said.
“We have to sometimes resort on going to our cellphones or even using a landline phone from people’s houses just to get out and communicate. Having that added coverage and closer range will definitely benefit our communications,” Woehlecke said.
Elevation makes a difference, Center Grove area resident Dennis White said. His home in the Woodland Streams subdivision off Smokey Row Road sits in a low spot, so he typically can’t get a signal inside his house, he said. His phone works great outside the neighborhood. But since coverage is bad at home, he keeps a landline phone that he could use if there was some type of emergency.
“I probably would consider changing and deleting the landline if the cellphone worked on a reliable basis,” he said.