Cell phone rescue calls for 911

Locator technology: Wireless phone site-ID is vital in emergencies, but a workable system is still elusive.

October 04, 2001

WIRELESS phones have revolutionized U.S. communications, with more than 116 million units in use.

But their popularity creates a major problem for the 911 emergency system. Unlike land-based phones, mobile wireless units don't automatically transmit their site for dispatchers to speed help. A cell caller must know and tell the dispatcher his or her location.

Wireless carriers were required in 1996 to build site-identification capability into their phones by this month. They have not done so, and instead have asked the Federal Communications Commission for more time to develop and install the technology.

With 30 percent of all 911 calls being made from cell phones, this is a major public safety issue. But requiring immediate, half-baked fixes won't do.

The FCC should grant extensions, but with stiff penalties for foot-draggers. Because even if the private carriers could wave a magic wand today, the 5,000 U.S. 911 centers don't have equipment to identify and pinpoint cell calls.

All 24 Maryland centers say they are equipped to identify wireless caller numbers (but not locations). Yet only Baltimore County is doing so, with limited success. Only six county centers have digitized display maps, even for land-based calls.

The wide range of technologies and hundreds of wireless companies complicate the problem. Global Positioning Satellite locators appear the most promising, but competing systems claim cost and other advantages.

The Sept. 11 terrorist assaults showed the value of cell phones. Yet even if the enhanced 911 system had been in place, it likely wouldn't have helped rescuers find survivors calling from the World Trade Center wreckage. The siting accuracy can vary by several blocks, or even miles. (Dedicated homing devices can target cell phones if they are turned on, but only at close range.)

Blame for the delay in universal wireless site-ID capability is shared.

Proliferation of technologies and firms makes it hard to coordinate. Privacy concerns about tracking abuses remain. But 911 site location is the paramount goal. The FCC must keep pushing to make that connection.

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