Answering the call for help

Connection: Untraceable and unending cell phone calls have become a problem for 911 centers.

April 06, 2003|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The technology that promises to keep people connected can leave Harford County 911 operators hanging on the line.

Cell phones - a kind of modern-day life preserver - befuddle the county's dispatching system. They clog lines with unattended, accidental calls. And, when there is an emergency, cell phones leave no trace of who is calling or from where.

"The pluses [of cell phones] far outweigh the minuses right now, but we just do not have the same level of service for wireless callers that we do for wired ones," said Scott Whitney, executive director for the state Emergency Numbers System Board in Baltimore.

The problem of untraceable and unending wireless calls is exacerbated in Harford, a sprawling county with old technology, a small staff and plenty of cell phones. But the problem is national in scope.

According to the National Emergency Number Association, a nonprofit group dedicated solely to making 911 a universal emergency number, one in four 911 calls comes from a cell phone. That number is expected to more than double in the next five years.

Most of those - as many as 70 percent, the association reported - come from a new phenomenon: phantom calls, such as hang-ups from misdialed phones; minutes of babbling babies placated with a distracted mother's cell phone; long streams of singing, jingling or even silence when digits are pushed as phones are tucked into purses and pockets.

"If you can think it up, I probably heard it on the cell phone," said Rhonda Polk, who has worked as a dispatcher for the county for 14 years.

Last year, the majority of emergency calls in Harford County - about 82 percent - came from cell phones, emergency service figures show.

According to Mitch Vocke, manager of special operations at the Harford County Division of Emergency Services, about 6 percent of the cell phone calls were phantom calls. He estimated the number actually was much higher because, he said, the agency has been fine-tuning its data collection system. So far, figures show that phantom calls make up about one-quarter of the wireless calls received this year.

In 1999, the Federal Communications Commission required cell phone providers to equip phones with two technologies: one that allows cell numbers to appear on 911 caller ID systems, and one that uses the Global Positioning System to locate a caller within 100 meters. Much of this effort, called "enhanced 911" or e-911, was to have been completed by 2005.

But deadlines have slipped as the FCC granted the nation's largest cell phone providers waivers. Local dispatch systems, typically underfunded and understaffed, have fallen behind on upgrading their own systems. Government agencies and the telecommunications industry have had difficulty in coordinating their efforts. So far, Rhode Island is the only state in full compliance with the regulation.

Maryland is awaiting legislation that could raise most phone bills by as much as 40 cents a month to fund the e-911 upgrades. Current fees provide about $5 million a year for technological improvements, Whitney said. He estimated it would take about $38 million over three years to meet the federal requirements.

Half of the state's counties have requested caller ID systems from wireless providers; federal regulations require them to make a formal request before the process can begin.

Funding and staffing issues have prevented the rest from doing so. So far, only three counties' 911 systems can capture a cell phone number: Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Talbot. Anne Arundel also is nearing the completion of installing its mapping system.

The biggest challenge, Whitney said, is the technology. "When a star shows up on a map, we need to be able to send fire and police to an address. It's not sufficient to get just a road. It's difficult to provide that level of detail - it is labor-intensive and costly."

Comparatively speaking, Harford County is lucky. While the quiet, mostly rural district handles a fair share of crime, dispatchers said they have not faced harrowing experiences such as the one that sparked the cell phone debate roughly one decade ago. According to news reports, 18-year-old Jennifer Koon of Rochester, N.Y., called 911 on her cell phone, but as she cried for help, all the operators could do was overhear her sexual assault and death from their end of the line. They had no way to locate her.

Locating cell phone callers continues to pose a challenge today. In Harford County, dispatchers once had trouble identifying an accidental cell phone caller who was in their midst.

Despite his three decades of public safety work in Harford, Vocke last year had to sheepishly tell the dispatchers he worked with - who sat just feet from him - that he was in no danger. The trigger to the 911 call coming from his phone was the auto-dial button pressing against his hip. He had placed it in his pocket as he hauled work gear around the office.

"I've done it, county executives have done it, we have all done it," Vocke said with a shrug.

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