Last year in New Jersey, a 69-year-old woman from out of state was driving to see her friends late one night when her car's alternator broke. Without power to start the car or unlock the electric locks, the woman was trapped. Desperate, she called 911 on her cellular phone without a clue as to where she was located. In another New Jersey town, a 911 dispatcher received a wireless call reporting a car accident on Jacksonville Road, but the caller was unable to tell the dispatcher which of the four Jacksonville roads in the general area was the location of the accident.
In each of these incidents, help was dispatched quickly and to the right place, thanks to technology that can find -- within a few hundred feet -- the location of a wireless 911 call. The responses to these calls for help were just two of several thousand the New Jersey Office of Emergency Telecommunications Services (OETS) were able to identify and locate during a three-month trial of the country's first live wireless enhanced 911 service.
While the trial only covered a 50-mile stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike, it was the first time public safety officials attempted to identify and locate real wireless 911 calls. "We were able to reach and even exceed the FCC mandate," said Robert Miller, OETS executive director.
In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission issued requirements that wireless companies provide 911 dispatchers with information that identifies and locates 911 calls from cellular phones. The two-part phase-in of these requirements began in April this year and gives companies five years to upgrade their cellular networks with technology that tells 911 dispatchers the location of an emergency caller to within 125 meters.
However, if the FCC's goals are clear, how they are going to be reached is another matter. Decisions concerning technology, standards and cost must be hashed out. "How much all of this is going to cost is the issue," said Woody Glover, executive director of the 911 Network in East Texas. Trying to pinpoint the location of a cell call to within a couple hundred feet could become extremely expensive, said Glover and a number of experts.
While the FCC requires states to develop a cost-recovery mechanism, such as a user surcharge, to pay for the technology and upgrades, it's not entirely clear what the money will pay for -- the infrastructure necessary for locating wireless calls or just the equipment for handling 911 emergencies. One person who is not surprised by the intricacies of wireless 911 is Bill Munn, president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and executive director of the Tarrant County, Texas, 911 District. "This whole issue has become a lot more complicated than people thought," he observed.
It comes as no surprise that the explosion in cellular phones has led to spectacular growth in 911 calls from people on the go. Figures show that 50,000 emergency calls per day -- as much as 25 percent of all 911 calls -- are placed from cell phones. Unfortunately, wireless calls cannot be identified and located the same way as landline 911 calls. As a result, a 911 cell-phone call may be misrouted by hundreds of miles. By the time dispatchers are able to home in on the actual location of the call, precious time may have been lost. Ironically, most people cite personal safety as one of the reasons for using cell phones. Very few consumers are aware of the fact that wireless calls are hard to locate.
When someone dials 911 from a landline phone, the call and the caller's phone number are passed by the carrier to a 911 switch, which uses the phone number to look up the name and address of the caller in a database known as the Master Street Address Guide. The name and address are then used to determine the closest public safety answering point (PSAP) to the