Progress Slow in Locating 911 Calls from Cell Phones

Deadline looms for improving technology to tracks users

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By
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Sept. 27, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 vividly demonstrated the importance of cellular phones as a means of communication in an emergency.

Passengers aboard Flight 93 called to say goodbye and offer the first glimpse into why the plane crashed into the ground in rural Pennsylvania instead of into another national landmark: They planned to storm the hijackers. People in the World Trade Center delivered news to loved ones, saying where they were and whether they were OK -- at least at that moment.

Cell phones are pressed into service during smaller-scale emergencies every day by people witnessing crimes, car accidents and heart attacks. But when this happens, cell phone users are at a disadvantage because, unlike callers from homes or offices, 911 operators can't pinpoint where the call is coming from. The problem is complicated if the caller is on unfamiliar ground and doesn't know where he is, either. Crucial seconds are lost.

That disadvantage is expected to change, but some public safety officials say the change is too slow in coming.

Even before the assaults on New York and the Pentagon, federal regulators had instructed the nation's wireless industry to create technology to turn handsets into location devices. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set an Oct. 1 deadline for wireless companies to act on the edict, either by requesting waivers to buy more time or submitting their plans to implement location technology. Nearly every major company in the industry has chosen a waiver.

While the relatively confined devastation of the World Trade Center isn't the ideal proving ground for a location system, experts predict cell phones equipped with the technology will play a vital role in rescue missions for other disasters, from tornadoes and earthquakes to road accidents on remote highways.

"It is very hard to say that anybody would have been found in the search and rescue efforts [on Sept. 11] with this kind of technology," says John Melcher, vice president of the National Emergency Number Association, which supports the system called Enhanced 911. "But [it] would save people's lives every day in every corner of the country. Not every disaster is as concentrated in one spot as the Trade Center or the Pentagon. The first question that you ever get from a 911 call taker is, 'Where are you?'"

Melcher, who is also deputy director of the Greater Harris County 911 Network which covers metropolitan Houston, says when landline emergency calls in that city started automatically recording locations in the mid-1980s, dispatchers were able to shave an average of about a half-minute off response time for each call. For an emergency, "that's a huge amount of time," he says.

Woody Glover, director of 911 programs at the Association of Public-Safety Communication Officials International in Daytona Beach, Fla., which proposed the Enhanced 911 initiative last year, says his group will not use the terrorist attacks to promote its agenda. "We're not looking to use that as leverage. It may increase awareness, but its not directly involved in what we're doing," Glover says.

Ironically, enhanced 911 advocates were meeting in Washington, D.C. to discuss the progress of the effort when the terrorist attacks began, Melcher says.

The FCC says it has received more than 30 waiver requests from wireless companies to push back the pending deadline. Regulators have acted on only one of those petitions, from VoiceStream, which it approved in September 2000.

Experts say the most obvious locating plans involve either network-based technology that uses triangulation -- using two known points to pin down a third, unknown area from which a signal emanates -- or equipping mobile phones with global positioning system (GPS) receivers that broadcast their position.

The FCC has mandated that network-based solutions must be able to track a signal to within 100 meters of its source, while phone-based systems are held to the tighter standard of 50 meters.

The network-based technology is a bigger front-end expense for wireless carriers, while the GPS approach would require cell phone users to upgrade or replace their current phones. The mobile communications industry estimates that 120 million customers use wireless phones in the United States.

The industry has argued that current technology isn't mature enough to justify the cost. But proponents have accused carriers of dragging their feet.

"It's certainly is an expense factor, but we think it's doable," Glover says.

Mobile phone users already have been paying surcharges of about $700 million a year to help fund the switch to enhanced 911 service, says the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), an industry group.

CTIA spokesman Travis Larson denies that the industry has been anything less than enthusiastic about implementing enhanced 911. "Wireless companies look at location technology as an opportunity to make money. There are definite commercial benefits," Larson says.

However, he says, "The technology has proved more difficult than anyone first expected, and although the technology is close, it's not here and implementable yet."

Yet some mobile phone companies have bucked industry resistance and are implementing location plans. Cingular Wireless, for example, the country's second largest wireless communications firm, announced last month that it had hooked up with TruePosition to deploy the first such system in the nation.

TruePosition, based in King of Prussia, Penn., set up its technology, called time-difference-of-arrival, to assist rescue workers in New York City in their search for survivors amid the wreckage of the twin towers.

Company spokesman Michael Amarosa says that as of last week it had referred about 100 leads to emergency crews to follow up, though how many of those represent a person isn't certain.

Time-difference-of-arrival is a network-based system that uses a computer to come up with rough coordinates for a cell phone by triangulating its signal. Amarosa says the system is accurate to within 100 meters.

What To Do

Wait. You'll be told when your phone or wireless system is capable. In the meantime, note that if you use a cell phone, whoever answers your 911 call doesn't necessarily know where you are. People who have witnessed accidents within a city's limits have dialed 911 only to reach a police department in a separate jurisdiction. If you're on an unfamiliar road, pay attention to signs and landmarks to give you an idea where you are.

To find out more about the Enhanced 911 initiative, try the Association of Public-Safety Communication Officials International, the National Emergency Number Association, or the FCC.

The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association has more information about the wireless industry.

SOURCES: Interviews with John Melcher, vice president, National Emergency Number Association, and deputy director, Greater Harris County 911 Network, Houston; Woody Glover, director, 911 programs and communication center operations, Association of Public-Safety Communication Officials International, Daytona Beach, Fla.; Travis Larson, spokesman, Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, Washington, D.C., and Michael Amarosa, vice president of public affairs, TruePosition, King of Prussia, Penn.; FCC

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