Group urges FCC to update wireless technology for emergency callers

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comSeptember 26, 2013 

Most people take it for granted: if you make an emergency call to 911 the dispatcher automatically knows the address you are calling from.

But that’s only the case if someone is calling from a land line.

Dispatchers cannot provide first responders with a precise address if someone calls 911 on a cell phone indoors, according to the Find Me 911 Coalition, a national organization of emergency responders, 911 dispatchers and others interested in helping find people in emergencies. The coalition is urging Congress and the FCC to update the technology used in cell phones and other wireless devices to help emergency responders get to 911 locations as quickly as possible.

It’s an issue that 911 centers across the Triangle are well aware of. Wake County Communications Center dispatchers receive about 50 cell phone calls a week that give only the location of the closest cell phone tower, said sheriff’s spokesman Capt. James Stevens. That can be a problem if the call ends early or the caller doesn’t know where they are.

“Obviously, locator data broadcast from the cell phone would help us, if such technology were available,” Stevens said.

Nearly 40 percent of U.S. households do not have land lines and rely solely on cell phones, according to the Federal Communications Commission. The agency estimates that 70 percent of the roughly 240 million 911 calls made each year are from wireless phones, and that of those, at least 50 percent originate indoors.

“We need to ensure that 911 works in today’s wireless world,” said Jamie Barnett, a retired Rear Admiral and Find Me 911 spokesman.

The group noted that there are two ways that emergency dispatchers can, at best, roughly determine a 911 caller’s location. With older phones, 911 operators rely on the cell phone tower nearest the caller. On newer phones, operators can use the phone’s GPS to plot the location.

But several 911 Center directors in the Triangle agreed that it can be especially challenging to locate people who use a mobile phone or other wireless device to dial 911 from indoors.

“The issue is with a standard telephone you always knew where exactly to go because it was hooked up by a pair of wires that don’t move,“ said Barry Furey, director of the 911 Center in Raleigh. “When you’re talking about cell phones, it’s an approximate location. It may allow us to be, say, in the same block, but it doesn’t put us inside and it doesn’t tell us which floor.”

Jason Barbour, director of the 911 Center in Johnston County, said wireless devices can pose problems even when used to call 911 from outdoors, particularly when the caller does not know where they are.

“About 75 percent to 80 percent of the calls we are getting are coming from wireless devices,” Barbour said. “A good percentage of people know where they are calling from. But what often happens, especially where I-95 and I-40 cross in our county, a lot of people don’t know where they are and that’s an issue we have to deal with.”

Still, it’s markedly easier for 911 dispatchers to determine the location of victims if they are calling from outside.

Early last year in Durham, Blake Brower Hubbard, 14, was walking through a heavily wooded area when he clambered up a transmission tower that carries high-tension power lines. The boy was electrocuted and fell more than 75 feet to his death. One of Hubbard’s friends dialed 911, told the operator what happened and then said he did not know where he was.

The dispatcher used the phone’s GPS to determine their location.

Doug Workman, director of the 911 Center in Cary, said getting an exact location from a 911 caller using a mobile phone has always been a challenge if the person is unable to provide an address.

“The current system as it is will only get you so close,” Workman said. “It will get you near an apartment complex, but it’s not going to let you know which apartment. We have had some incidents where we had to use other resources - the police - to search the apartments and tell us where, but nothing that has hampered our response time that resulted in the loss of someone’s life or someone’s property.”

McDonald: 919-829-4533

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