County plans fee increase to finance improved tracking of 911 cell calls

Step would enable police to pinpoint crisis sites

March 25, 2004|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Operators in Baltimore County's 911 center might soon be able to pinpoint the location of cell phone users placing emergency calls.

The system now typically provides an operator with an address showing the origin of a 911 call made from a landline phone, and with the location of the tower that relayed the cell phone call. Upgraded equipment, which would be paid for through an increase in the surcharge on phone bills in the county, could provide critical help for cell phone callers, said Scott Whitney, executive director of the Emergency Number Systems Board, an oversight group appointed by the governor.

"If you dial 911 from your house [on a landline phone], we can find you," he explained. "If you're in a domestic situation where an accident renders you unable to speak or the phone is disconnected or hung up [after 911 was dialed], we will still send a police officer to your house because we can find it. We need to provide that same level of service with a cell phone. If we can't locate the phone, we can't deliver help."

Whitney said police successfully handle the majority of 911 calls being placed from cell phones. "But if you have a motorist who is unfamiliar with the area, or who is disoriented or trapped in the car, then they can't tell you where they are," he added.

Anne Arundel, Harford and Talbot counties have the enhanced tracking system in operation, Whitney said.

In Anne Arundel, officials began tracking cell phone calls from one wireless carrier in August and now can pinpoint locations of cell calls from five carriers, said Cathy Kurnas, police communications manager for the county's 911 center. Kurnas said 47 percent of the 911 calls placed in Anne Arundel County are made on cell phones.

Cecil, Charles, Montgomery and St. Mary's counties have requested "Phase II" service, which means they have asked wireless carriers in their areas to begin sending data required for tracking 911 calls placed from cell phones, Whitney said.

Baltimore County officials are proposing a 25-cent increase to the current 50-cent surcharge for landlines and cell phones to pay for $2.3 million in improvements to the county's 911 center. The County Council is expected to vote on the proposed increased next month.

Being able to track cell phone calls would prove a big help in Baltimore County, where 45 percent of all emergency calls are made on cell phones, said Marie Whisonant, chief of the county's 911 center. She said the county receives about 2,200 emergency and nonemergency calls on slow days, and as many as 3,000 on peak days.

An improved system would enable operators to find the location of newer cell phones that have GPS technology, Whitney said.

The improved system would also provide "mapping" features that would help improve responses to calls by showing neighboring streets within a development, Whisonant said.

With an increased surcharge, the county would collect an estimated $6 million a year in total fees. Whisonant said the money is needed to help keep the 911 center's technology current.

"With this updated equipment, once you get something like this in, you have to keep it updated with maps," Whisonant said. "As soon as you put a map in, that map is out of date. With this new technology, as cell phones change, the cost is going to be ongoing."

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