911 dispatchers unable to pinpoint cell phones

FCC deadline passes for new technology

October 01, 2001|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

The moment Samuel Shirtcliff felt his chest throb, the 39-year-old trucker eased his rig off the highway, snatched his cell phone and hit 911. "I think I'm having a heart attack," he told the dispatcher in March.

As he began to explain where he was, the line suddenly went silent. By the time rescuers combed 50 miles of tangled Dallas highways to find him, Shirtcliff was slumped in the cab, dead.

When 911 operators receive a land-line call, the address pops up on their computer. But with cellular phones, all they get is a blank screen. By today, wireless carriers were supposed to have solved that problem by rolling out the technology to pinpoint cell phone callers.

But AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, Cingular Wireless, Qwest Wireless and Alltel Communications, which together handle the brunt of cellular traffic in the United States, have asked the Federal Communications Commission for more time. In their filings, carriers blame everything from third-party equipment makers to 911 dispatch centers for the delay.

Public safety officials concede that the problem is a complex one and that the delay in developing the system - called Enhanced 911 - is no particular group's fault. But they also argue that federal regulators haven't enforced carrier deadlines aggressively enough. Wireless companies, they say, have had plenty of time to work out technical barriers. The FCC launched the effort in 1996.

"It's very disappointing," says Woody Glover of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, the oldest and largest group representing 911 dispatchers in the country. "We're far enough along now that those things should be worked out quicker."

As federal regulators consider whether to grant extension requests, public safety groups have stepped up their lobbying campaign. Some have even suggested that the technology could have aided rescuers at the World Trade Center because some victims initially were believed to have dialed 911 from beneath the rubble in the hours after the attack. "The need is even greater now," three public safety organizations wrote in a joint letter to the FCC last month.

Meanwhile, the number of wireless 911 calls continues to grow. More than one in four 911 calls arrive via cell phone, according to the National Emergency Number Association. Public safety officials expect that figure to more than double in the next five years. In some dispatch centers, wireless calls account for as much as half of call volume.

Enhanced 911 was supposed to arrive in two stages, both of which require significant - and expensive - equipment upgrades to cellular networks and dispatch centers.

"Part of the problem is the wide range of technologies involved," says spokesman Travis Larson of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, the industry trade group.

In the first phase, carriers were to provide dispatchers with the cell phone number and the cell tower handling the call.

Knowing the cell tower offers a very rough guide to the caller's location. In a city such as Baltimore, that might narrow it down to a neighborhood. In rural areas, where cell towers are more spread out, it might only get rescuers to the nearest county. "The problem is the cell phone doesn't always use the closest tower," says Glover.

The carrier deadline for the first phase was supposed to be April 1998 or within six months of receiving a dispatch center's request. In Maryland, all 24 of the state's 911 dispatch centers have upgraded their computers to receive the cell phone and tower information, says Sheila Boswell, president of the Maryland Emergency Number Association.

But only Baltimore County's dispatch center has successfully linked with wireless carriers. And the system still has bugs because dispatchers see cell phone numbers on their screens only about 20 percent of the time, notes supervisor Mark Clark. Nationwide, public safety groups estimate that fewer than half of the nation's more than 5,000 emergency 911 centers are getting the cell phone number.

In the second phase, which was scheduled to begin today, carriers were to provide latitude and longitude coordinates to within 328 feet of a caller's location. It's a demanding technical problem that carriers and dispatch centers are struggling to pull off.

Many major carriers have chosen a solution that relies on a Global Positioning System chip embedded in each cell phone and modifications to the cellular network. Dispatch centers, meanwhile, need things such as accurate digital maps of their service areas, something they often have to pull together themselves.

The ability to zero in on cell phones is crucial, 911 dispatchers say, because callers frequently have no idea where they are or are too badly injured to say.

Baltimore County dispatcher Gayle Hendrix recalls a domestic violence call a few years ago from a woman in a car who had covertly pressed 911 on her phone.

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