Pinpointing origin of cell phone calls slowly moves ahead

Over half of 911 centers in state are able to glean at least some information

December 01, 2003|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Lt. John R. McKissick punched 911 into a cell phone while standing behind a dispatcher in Howard County's communications center in Ellicott City. A second later, the dispatcher answered the test call.

A small monitor on her desk flashed the phone number, the wireless carrier, the coordinates of the cell tower a few miles away that routed the call and a broad area in the county where the call originated. A computerized map on another screen pinpointed the tower with a red arrow.

But the precise location of the caller was elusive.

"At least we have a place to start looking for them," said McKissick, who commands the Howard Police Department's communications division. "It's a whole lot better than what we had before, which was nothing."

More than half of the 911 centers in Maryland are able to glean some information from a cell phone call, such as the phone's owner and number, the closest cellular tower and often a broad area in which the call originated. But unlike calls made from land lines, nearly every 911 center in the state lacks the ability to pinpoint the origin of wireless calls.

That capability is on the horizon. For several years, U.S. communities have been slowly upgrading to "enhanced 911," or E911, for cellular calls as a byproduct of a federal requirement that wireless carriers improve 911 service for their subscribers by the end of 2005.

But the nationwide effort has taken longer than expected, as government regulators and wireless companies have struggled to craft standards and develop new technology. A recent report from the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that many states are still years from upgrading their 911 centers with the new technology.

Public safety experts say the technology is critical for police and fire departments, which can use it to respond to medical and traffic emergencies in cases where victims can't speak or don't know where they are. It's also useful to tackle crimes, such as abductions, where a victim may dial 911 but not be able to reveal a location.

Some cases this year have intensified interest in the effort. In May, a 25-year-old man in Philadelphia was kidnapped, bound with duct tape and fatally stabbed. Although the man was able to call 911 twice, emergency dispatchers couldn't trace his calls. In one call, which lasted 18 minutes, dispatchers listened helplessly as the man begged his abductors for his life.

The number of 911 calls from mobile phones has been steadily rising, accounting for 30 percent to 50 percent of emergency calls in many communities nationwide. That makes E911 a high priority, public safety experts say.

Among the hurdles that states have to surmount are limited funding, outdated equipment and a lack of coordination among states, localities, wireless companies and other technology providers, the safety experts say.

"We're so accustomed in the past with wire-line 911, where we only had to deal with one phone company," said Richard Taylor, president of the National Emergency Number Association in Arlington, Va., which represents thousands of 911 centers nationwide.

"With wireless, we're dealing with six, seven, eight, nine, 10 companies, and everybody has a different twist. [Wireless carriers] can implement their own technology, and we have to integrate all of them," he said.

A spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, which represents wireless carriers, said its clients are on schedule in most cases to meet the Federal Communications Commission's 2005 deadline for supplying phone-tracking technology. And some are ahead of schedule.

J. Scott Whitney, executive director of Maryland's Emergency Number Systems Board, which oversees the state's 24 emergency communications centers, said the wireless carriers have been cooperative.

"Maryland has been pretty fortunate," Whitney said. "There's no one carrier who is not performing or dragging their feet. They're on board trying to help us out. ... Nationally, we're competitive with our surrounding states."

With the technological issues largely hammered out, the focus is increasingly on the 911 centers across the country - totaling more than 6,000.

The emergency centers are typically run at the state or local level, outside FCC jurisdiction. And the centers are not required by federal or state regulatory bodies to request the locator technology by the end of 2005.

The result: Without a national deadline for emergency centers to implement E911, the wireless service is "several years away in many states," according to a GAO report released Nov. 12.

The report said 24 states expect to offer full wireless 911 service by 2005; the rest estimated completion beyond 2005 or were unable to provide a date.

"This raises the prospect that E911 implementation will be piecemeal both within states and across the nation for an indefinite number of years to come," the report said.

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