and perhaps started following instructions for releasing customer information in an ordinary police investigation rather than instructions for a dire emergency.

"I've been around this business long enough to know they were on a holiday weekend, they were probably running short-handed," Lingle said. "I can understand that. But the fact is that we didn't get what we needed right away."

Dunleavy, however, said that staffing was not an issue for Sprint Nextel.

"We always keep this number staffed, even during a holiday weekend," she said, adding that the protocol for an emergency situation was properly followed on that day.

When John Tavaglione, supervisor for Riverside County's District 2, learned of the incident the next day, he placed a new item on the agenda for the Board of Supervisors' Jan. 9 meeting. He proposed that Sprint Nextel not be allowed to build any more cell phone towers in the county until the carrier identified and solved the problem.

"That got their attention," said Tavaglione, adding that he was pleased when a Sprint Nextel representative attended the meeting to apologize. "She indicated that they were understaffed and this is not the way they attempt to do things. She was great," he said.

Another representative who spoke at the meeting, however, said that the company had done no wrong, Tavaglione added.

"We made it clear, 'We don't want to put a moratorium on your towers,'" Tavaglione said. "'We want you to fix this, whatever that means.' [Both Sprint Nextel representatives] agreed they would sit down with our Sheriff's Department and hopefully find a way for them and other law enforcement agencies to move this through in a much more efficient way."

Tavaglione dropped the idea of a cell phone tower moratorium when the county's attorney pointed out there was no real connection between the Dec. 23 incident and tower construction.

"I said, 'That's fine,'" he recalled. "I think they've gotten the message. As long as they're willing to get to the table and work together, let's go that route."

As of early February 2006, the ball apparently was still in Sprint Nextel's court.

"We have not been notified by them that their investigation is completed," Lingle said. In the meantime, the Sheriff's Department is taking steps to ensure field officers and the Communications Division follow the same procedures in emergencies and understand wireless carriers' policies, he said.

State Legislation

The incident prompted the Sheriff's Department and several wireless carriers to give their input on a bill in the state Legislature designed to avoid similar problems in the future.

State Assemblyman John Benoit, whose legislative district includes Riverside County, introduced the bill in February 2006. It addresses situations like the Cochrans' -- when the subscriber isn't in possession of the phone -- and 911 calls when the caller is ill or injured and can't report his or her location.

The FCC has ordered that wireless carriers deploy technology to ensure that when someone calls 911 from a cell phone, responders can see the caller's location just as they would on a call from a wired phone. That's the main reason manufacturers started including GPS chips in cell phones.

"But then they have this privacy issue that prohibits them from releasing the information in certain circumstances," said Benoit, a former California Highway Patrol commander.

Benoit's bill requires that if a fully identified public safety officer calls a wireless carrier stating an exigent circumstance and provides a customer's telephone number, the carrier will call back with the requested location information. It eliminates the need to fax paperwork, and protects the carrier from criminal or civil liability for releasing the information.

That protection is crucial for wireless providers, who are often caught between

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer