Landline vs. cellphone

In an emergency, does it matter which you have? Local experts weigh in

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published July 5, 2017

Shutterstock images

METRO DETROIT — Ready to cut the cord?

The decision to keep a landline telephone, to use a landline along with a cellphone, or to just have a cellphone is one that many grapple with as cellphones and smartphones become ubiquitous. 

While ditching the landline may save money and cut down on calls from telemarketers, there are some things to take into consideration before making the jump.

“When it comes to cellphones these days, people love them more and more, because you can do anything you want,” said Teresa Mask, a spokesperson for AT&T, explaining that checking on digital home security is just one way that a cellphone can enhance safety. 

On the other hand, she said, “We have had customers come in the store because they have a senior mom or they have a young child who’s going to be staying home alone, and they want to make sure there’s that extra way for them to reach out.”

In case of emergency is a good reason to keep a landline in the home, said Cherie Bartram, executive director of the South East Regional Emergency Services Authority (seresa), which serves the cities of Eastpointe, Roseville and St. Clair Shores. In an emergency, it can be more difficult to locate where a person is with a cellphone than it is with a landline telephone, she added.

Emergency dispatch services receive all the information, such as name and address, when residents call for help on a true landline. But even Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) telephones — typically provided through cable and internet companies — don’t give emergency dispatchers as much information, because they are digitally based.

“As technology is advancing and we come closer to the next generation of 911, it will be easier for us to find people when they call on their cellphones, but it’s not here yet,” Bartram said. 

There is a way to get rid of the landline and still have emergency personnel be able to have your information at their fingertips, she said. is a service that allows residents to sign up with their cellphone number and then add in their own personal information: address, landline telephone number if they have one, the names of all people in the household, if anyone in the house has any special needs, and even photographs of people in the household that will help identify them in an emergency situation.

“That will kind of bridge the gap,” Bartram said. “Especially with landlines going away, it will give us way more information than any landline, by itself, could.”

Without Smart911, Bartram said that emergency services can pinpoint the location of a person using a cellphone in an emergency, but it might take a few minutes longer.

“We can locate you within a few houses, but if somebody calls and they’re not exactly sure where they are, it will take a little investigative work,” she said. The cellphone companies are “really great in helping us out and helping us to locate someone in an emergency, but they take time, and those minutes count in an emergency.”

While SERESA and the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office are two of the 32 dispatch centers across Michigan that already support Smart911, about $2 million has been set aside in the 2017 Michigan budget to spread it across the state, according to Smart911.

“Even if their specific community doesn’t (support Smart911), if they’re traveling through a community that does, it will still pick it up,” Bartram said. “If you have children and you’re in Florida and you are going through a community that has Smart911 ... and your child wanders off ... they instantly get that picture. Then people can be looking for your child with that picture, so it has a lot of applications other than just when you’re in (your own community).”

Parents looking to ditch their landline should make sure children know their address. Bartram said she would tell her granddaughter a story every time that she washed her hair that included their address to help her memorize it for quick recall. 

If someone is coming into the house to watch the child, make sure to write down your address with the emergency information you are leaving so that the babysitter doesn’t have to waste time looking for it in an emergency. 

While parents may be tempted to keep an old, inactive cellphone around so a child can dial 911, that’s actually not a good idea, Bartram said. Children playing games on an old smartphone that isn’t connected to a cellular provider can accidentally dial 911 — sometimes over and over — tying up the service. And without the phone connected to a cellular network, dispatchers won’t be able to pinpoint the phone’s location at all. 

“If it’s a true emergency and they pick up that phone to call us, we can’t find you,” she said. “It’s not good to keep it around for an emergency backup for that purpose.”

Southfield Fire Chief Johnny Menifee said that his department receives calls from residents both on landlines and cellphones. He said he worries most about power outages for those with VOIP phones that might not work without power, and cellphones that may not be charged before the power goes out.

Working with senior citizen groups, St. Clair Shores Community Resource Officer Chad Hammer said that a power outage is one of the biggest concerns of the elderly.

“They like it (landlines) because if the power ever does go out and, let’s say that a cell tower goes out, then their landline still works,” he said.

Other challenges include the fact that calls may route to a neighboring department if a resident is right on the border of two communities, for instance on Eight Mile Road in Southfield. And sometimes calls drop because of a loss of cell signal, Menifee said. 

But when residents put emergency contact information into their cellphone, like In Case of Emergency (ICE) numbers, “those have been very helpful for us with cellphones, especially some minors (and) the elderly,” Menifee said.

To add an emergency contact to a cellphone, simply add a contact that you’d wish emergency personnel to contact if you are unable, but put “ICE” before their name.

According to Menifee, “The more information we have, the better that we can serve you.”