Many of this nation's estimated 129 million cell phone users carry cell phones specifically for emergencies. What few people realize is that the cell phone safety features are not the same as of a landline phone. In most states, if someone calls 911- as 156,000 people do each day - and if the call is placed on a cell phone, the 911 operator cannot locate where the call is coming from, or the phone number from which the person is calling.
That deficiency has long been recognized, in part because of a number of high profile cases that have caught media attention in the last decade.
In 1993, 18-year-old Jennifer Koon, a college sophomore, was on her way home from work when she drove into a shopping plaza outside Rochester, N.Y. to get cash at an ATM. She was car-jacked, but managed to place a 911 call before her cell phone was knocked to the floor.
"The last 20 minutes of her life were basically recorded by the 911 operator," explained her father, New York State Assemblyman David Koon (D). "The 911 operator knew something was terribly wrong, but couldn't locate where the call was coming from."
In Florida, Karla Gutierrez drove off a Florida highway into a canal. As water poured into her car, she couldn't get out. She called 911 on her cell phone, but she couldn't tell the 911 operator where she was located. She drowned in her car.
Last year, in Chicago, a schoolteacher, Wardella Winchester, was kidnapped and kept in the trunk of a car. She had her cell phone with her and called 911. The police couldn't pinpoint her location. She was found dead in Indiana.
To address this problem, the FCC mandated that the situation be rectified in two phases: phone number identification by 1998 and cell phone-location finding by 2000.
A number of states have been collecting taxes from cell phone users specifically to finance these developments, and more states have recently levied a 911 wireless phone tax. Yet progress in meeting the FCC deadlines, which have now been extended, is not what one might expect.
The reason is simple, according to the wireless industry and others: Money collected to finance E-911 services, as they are sometimes called, has been used for other purposes.
Over the last three fiscal years, the District of Columbia has used more than $9 million in E-911 funds "for unspecified personnel expenses of the police department," according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA).
California redirected $50 million from its E-911 pool in 2001. Texas took $40 million for other state programs in 2001. Virginia took $30 million in 2002. Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina have all raided millions of dollars from E-911 funds.
Perhaps the most egregious example is New York where, which has collected a "911 tax" from wireless customers for 10 years, but has not upgraded a single computer to receive location information.
Recently, New York auditors found that the surcharge money has instead been used for a range of state police activities, including purchasing radio communication systems, microwave communications equipment and maintaining radio equipment. Auditors also found the money has been used for dry cleaning, lawn-mowing services and travel expenses.
"Enhanced 911 service is not a luxury," said H. Carl McCall, state comptroller, and who is running against Gov. George Pataki for governor. "It's a necessity, and it's inexcusable that New Yorkers are paying for this service but are not receiving it. The technology exists; the money is there; more than 20 other states have done it. But the Pataki administration simply has not made the commitment to implement E-911 service and protect New Yorkers."
Assemblyman Koon goes even further.
"In New York, the governor has misled all of the constituents in the state, not letting them know that they are