911 service improving for Web calls, cell phones

Plugged in

April 14, 2005|By Mike Himowitz

WHAT DO YOU do when there's a fire in the kitchen, or you wake up and hear burglars, or when somebody slips on the stairs and breaks a leg? For almost three decades, Americans have dialed 911.

No matter where we were, those three numbers connected us to local dispatchers who could summon firefighters, police or paramedics. Most of the time, we didn't even have to know where we were. Thanks to technology, the dispatcher already knew and could send help.

But now we're a nation of cell phone users - 170 million at last count - calling one another from cars, trains, bikes, jogging paths, restaurants and locker rooms, not to mention from different cities. And a handful of us are starting to make calls from phones that aren't even phones in the real sense: they're gadgets that digitize our voices, turn them into data and route them over the Internet, a technology known as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

The problem with cell phones and, more recently, with VoIP services is that they gained popularity before anyone figured out how to integrate them with the nation's emergency response system.

True, you can make a 911 call from a cell phone or VoIP telephone and you'll probably get someone to answer. But it might not always be the right emergency call center and the person on the other end might have no way of knowing exactly where you are.

Fortunately, that's changing for the better. In Maryland, all but four counties - Garrett, Allegany, Worcester and Prince George's - have upgraded their 911 systems to provide the physical location of cell phone callers within 100 yards or so.

Gordon Deans, executive director of Maryland's Emergency Number Systems Board, said he expects all Maryland 911 systems to be cell phone compliant by the end of June, six months before a deadline legislated by Congress.

How compliant your phone is depends on your carrier and your handset. Some cell phone providers use global positioning system satellites and chips built into newer phones to determine your location. Others triangulate your position using the location of the cell towers in your area. Some, Deans said, use a combination.

His recommendation is to check with your provider. If your phone isn't fully 911 compliant, look for a good deal on an upgrade and get a new phone.

Why the problem in the first place?

Until the late 1960s, to call a local police or fire department, you had to know the local phone number, which was fine for folks staying at home, but not for travelers.

In regions with many small jurisdictions, those numbers could change every few miles. Nor could police and fire departments know with certainty whether the person calling them was within in their jurisdiction or anywhere near it.

After years of discussion, largely propelled by the country's fire chiefs, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission authorized a national emergency number system in 1967. In January 1968, AT&T announced that "911" would henceforth be the number to call for emergency aid anywhere in the country.

By the way, the first "official" 911 call was made in Haleyville, Ala. a month after AT&T's announcement, but it took decades for 911 systems to reach across the nation, and there are still a handful of counties in rural areas with no 911 service.

In truth, there is still no national 911 system, just a collection of local agreements between phone companies and public safety agencies.

At its heart, every 911 system serves as a direct link between your phone and your community's Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). That's the room where operators take emergency 911 calls and dispatch police, firefighters or ambulances to the trouble spot.

Although the first 911 systems merely connected callers with a local police or fire department, it became obvious that public safety agencies needed more.

The first problem was making sure that 911 calls reached the right emergency center for the caller's location. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it took some technological doing because the areas served by the phone company's central offices didn't always coincide with local political boundaries.

The next step was to provide PSAPs with the caller's phone number and street location. This has long been one of the most important safety features of the 911 system. If you suddenly find yourself gasping for air, and all you have the strength to do is pick up the phone and punch 911, that's all an operator needs to send help.

Once again, in an age of computers and Caller ID, this sounds like a simple job. But the analog phone systems of the 1950s and 1960s weren't hooked into computers the way they are today. The technology AT&T and others developed to provide automatic number identification (ANI) and automatic location information (ALI) was designed specifically for those old analog systems.

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