AS FLAMES engulfed the small wood-frame house in northwest Prince George's County in February, a frantic neighbor dialed 911 on her cell phone. But the wireless message was directed by the cell phone tower to a nearby District of Columbia fire department, which didn't recognize the address until too late. Three people died in that fire in Chillum.
The deadly episode pointed to serious defects in the nation's proliferation of wireless phones: Only about 1,000 of the 6,000 911 emergency centers can trace the location of a call within 100 meters to 300 meters (depending on chosen technology), and many older cell phones can't provide an automatic call-back number for emergency workers.
Yet half the calls to urban 911 centers (and one-third of all 911 calls) are made by wireless phones, which are steadily overtaking the number of land-line phones.
Ironically, many cellular customers consider their portable phones a safety device. But that emergency safety net has big holes in it. A recent test by Consumer Reports magazine found that 15 percent of calls made to 911 centers on wireless phones didn't go through.
Unlike land-based lines, on which the nation's life-saving 911 system has been built for 35 years, not all wireless phones provide centers with locations or caller ID. Barely two-thirds of 911 centers can even receive call-back numbers and the site of the relaying signal tower.
By federal law, that deficiency is supposed to be fixed by 2005, with all wireless companies required to enable emergency centers to determine within 100 meters a caller's location. But a congressional report last month warned that that capability is many years off and that implementation of the service has been piecemeal.
New cell phones linked to Global Positioning System satellites can closely pinpoint calling sites and flash their caller ID. But the 911 centers have to be equipped to receive and use this vital information. And the multiple wireless carriers, with competing technologies, don't have to enable this service unless the centers are up and running and officially request the locator technology.
The cost to upgrade the nation's carriers and 911 centers is estimated at $8 billion. Though most states, including Maryland, have collected an emergency services fee on phone bills for years, there's still a big funding gap. Phone carriers also collect a surcharge to meet their obligations.
New federal legislation would provide from $100 million to $500 million in grants for 911 system upgrades. That's a welcome start. Another step would be to persuade users of older cell phones, without locator capabilities, to exchange them for new basic models.
Better locator capability is an essential element of wireless phones, and of 911 centers, so that a call for help is not sometimes simply a cry in the wilderness.