To move the process along, Congress is considering two bills that would help states fund 911 technology upgrades and training, and coordinate the effort from the federal level.
Last month, the House approved a bill that would provide up to $100 million a year in matching grants through 2008 for wireless 911 advancements. A Senate bill would provide up to $500 million a year in matching grants for overall 911 upgrades.
The price tag for wireless carriers, states and localities to deploy the technology could amount to more than $8 billion over the next five years, according to the National Emergency Number Association.
About 65 percent of 911 centers nationwide are in the same position as Howard and several other Maryland jurisdictions, the association said. These centers are capable of receiving what the FCC calls "Phase I" data, which includes a call-back number and the cellular tower location.
But only 18 percent of 911 centers nationwide get the next level of information - called "Phase II" - which reveals a more accurate location of some wireless callers, the association said. The FCC requires carriers - depending on the tracking technology they use - to be accurate within 50 to 100 meters.
In Maryland, only Anne Arundel County's 911 center is in Phase II, although several other counties have requested the capability from wireless carriers.
For now, Anne Arundel's 911 dispatchers can track calls made from cell phones serviced by only three of the six carriers in the county as the system continues to be rolled out, said Cathy Kurnas, the county's 911 center commander.
But Kurnas highlighted a gap in the new system: coverage of some older-model cell phones.
"We found in a lot of our testing with our carriers that we get the information, but in the real world we're not getting it because people don't have the phones yet," she said. "It's important for people to realize that if you don't have a phone equipped with the technology, it doesn't matter if the 911 center receives the call."
Taylor, head of the National Emergency Number Association, said wireless carriers who opted for Global Positioning System technology in their cell phones are required to have 95 percent of their subscribers using the new handsets at the end of 2005.
As the deadline approaches, he said, wireless subscribers should check with their carriers and not assume that their mobile phone can be tracked in an area known to have Phase II service.
"This is not your daddy's 911 system anymore," Taylor said. "This isn't the same system we were dealing with 20 years ago. This is a brand new network."