11 Alive & Brendan Keefe win Peabody Award for 911 investigation

Brendan Keefe at the recent Peabody ceremonies with Jon Stewart. CREDIT: Keefe/special

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Brendan Keefe at the recent Peabody ceremonies with Jon Stewart. CREDIT: Keefe/special

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Monday, June 6, 2016

Brendan Keefe, chief investigative reporter for 11 Alive, has taken home a prestigious national Peabody Award for his reports about the 911 system, which has been hobbled by antiquated equipment, disjointed management, under-funding and heavier use of cell phones. (The Peabody is overseen by the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism.)

The 911 used to be able to pinpoint exact locations when everyone used landlines. But now 70 to 80 percent of calls come in via cell phone. And cell phone accuracy is far from assured. According to Keefe's 2015 story, about half of all cell phone calls to 911 don't allow dispatchers to see the callers' exact location. Even when a person on the line tells you where they are, 911 can have a difficult time to locate said person in certain situations.

Keefe used a drowning Atlanta  woman Shanell Anderson as an example. She accidentally drove her car into a lake, called 911 and provided the proper address, but the 911 operator couldn't locate her before she drowned. The 911 call is heart-wrenching as she goes under in the middle of call.

Later, Keefe typed her address into Google maps and it came up in a matter of microseconds. The problem: Anderson wasn't routed to the proper 911 operator in the proper jurisdiction.

When Keefe found out from the Alpharetta 911 chief that they have trouble every day tracking people down, he realized he had a story. He looked nationwide and found chronic issues all over the country. He said the jurisdictions involved - the FCC, the cell phone carriers and the local 911 centers - ended up just pointing fingers at each other.

His conclusion: 911 gives us a false sense of security. "This has become a huge national crisis," he said. "What you have is a lack of leadership. Everyone is invested in this current system and they're unwilling to change it. That's frustrating.... It even happened to Prince. When someone called, the dispatcher didn't know where Paisley Park was."

The NBC affiliate last year ran 10 major broadcast stories, a 30-minute prime-time special and contributed to a national USA Today article on the subject.

The Peabody committee wrote: "For doggedly pursuing a local accident that proved to have national consequence - and for likely saving lives - a Peabody Award goes to 911: Lost on the Line."

About 18 months have passed since that first story. Keefe is frustrated that wholesale change has yet to happen but the topic has become fodder for other media.

John Oliver on HBO's "Last Week Tonight" last month did an extensive piece on the subject, using some of Keefe's source material and video.

"I'll be honest," Keefe said. "John Oliver has a bigger megaphone. He reaches a different audience. I'm incredibly appreciative we can get that type of awareness. There is now a broader population that understands 911 can't always find you. That's a big public service. It was fun to watch John Oliver take the fruits of our investigation and give it a wider audience."

The Peabody awards show, which taped in New York May 21, will air tonight on Pivot but Keefe doesn't expect his acceptance speech will make the cut given that he's not a big famous name.

While he was talking, he could see Stewart watching him. "Jon Stewart has always had fun showing how stupid local news people can be," Keefe said. "We create a lot of material. Let's face it. TV news is broken. So to have him sitting there with a knowing, approving smile was better than winning the award." He talked to Stewart afterwards and got a picture taken (see above). "I was probably stumbling over myself," Keefe said. "I've watched 'The Daily Show' before he was even on it. We talked a lot about TV news and how investigative reporting will be the savior of local TV news."

Keefe is proud that his work received a unanimous vote from the Peabody committee, beating out two "60 Minutes" pieces. "It really gives you a sense of membership in a very elite club," he said, noting that it has been at least 17 years since an Atlanta newscast has previously won a Peabody.

"Walter Cronkite once said that you count your Emmys, but you cherish the Peabodys. That really fits," he said. "They care about stories that matter, that are impactful."

He continues to do pieces on the subject. Last month, he reported on yet another drowning in another Georgia county that was eerily similar to that of Shanell Anderson. And he recently did his 13th major investigative piece focused on the Atlanta police department.

One piece of good news: a couple of Atlanta inventors came up with an app called LAAser that would make it easier for 911 to locate cell phones that is patent pending.

"There is momentum," Keefe said. "We need to get his fixed. Again, I would trade my Peabody to bring Shanell back."


"Peabody Awards," 8 p.m., Monday, June 6, 2016, Pivot