Monday, July 13, 2009

Some 911 centers can’t keep tabs on cell phones


Before you read the article on the MSNBC website, be prepared that if you click on the "green" links, you shouldn't expect to receive more information on 9-1-1, you'll get nothing but AT & T and Samsung adverstising. I like this quote “The more choices you have to reach 911 in an emergency, the better, and a corded land line phone should be one of those options,” said Brian Fontes, chief executive of NENA.

Brian Fontes is urging people to keep their corded land line phone while AT & T is advertising Blackberrys. Hah!

More of my opinion at the end of the article:

Aging systems can’t pinpoint some users when they need help the most

By Alex Johnson
updated 8:05 a.m. ET, Mon., July 13, 2009

Donnie and Sharon Leutjen and their 15-year-old granddaughter, Taron Leutjen, were found June 9. They had been shot to death, and their bodies had lain in their home in Cole Camp, Mo., for about two days.

Authorities know approximately when the Leutjens were shot because they got a 911 call on the night of June 7.

On the tape of the call — which investigators examined after the worried inquiries of someone who knew the family led to the bodies' discovery — “one of the male voices was directing Sharon Leutjen to sit down (and) put her arms behind her,” the sheriff’s office in Benton County, in central Missouri, said in court documents.

“At least two threats to shoot her and the other two victims” could be heard, the sheriff’s office said.

So why didn’t deputies rush to the scene as soon as they got the call?

They couldn’t. They didn’t know where it came from. Whoever made the call used a cell phone, and Benton County’s technology isn’t advanced enough to take advantage of location services that are standard features of nearly all cell phones sold today.

Benton County isn’t an isolated example. Cell phones may lure us with the promise of immediate help in an emergency, but depending on where you live, that promise can go unkept because of inadequate technology at one or both ends of a 911 call.

“Access to 911 from cell phones is very different from wired phones and also varies greatly around the country,” said the National Emergency Number Association, or NENA, the nonprofit industry group that works with governments to promote and institute 911 programs across North America.

In places that haven’t upgraded their 911 centers to the latest technology, “this presents life-threatening problems due to lost response time” if callers are unable to speak or don’t know where they are, the organization said.

That’s why emergency officials and wireless industry leaders say every household should have a centrally located, easily accessible land line for emergency calls. But increasingly, Americans are dropping their land lines and going wireless-only.

Some systems find only a cell tower

The problem is that, by definition, a mobile phone can be anywhere. It isn’t tied to an address, which automatically pops up on a 911 operator’s screen during a call from a land line.

As cell phones have morphed into all-in-one multimedia toolboxes, U.S. carriers have integrated technology to use Global Positioning System satellites or their own towers to triangulate a phone’s location. It’s called Enhanced 911, or E911, and under Federal Communications Commission regulations, such capability must be built in to at least 95 percent of the phones a carrier sells.

But that information is only as good as the 911 infrastructure.

A decade after the Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act was enacted in 1999, requiring cell phone carriers to provide a caller’s location to 911, about 10 percent of the nation’s more than 6,000 call centers haven’t installed the equipment to use the information, NENA found in February. Those jurisdictions still offer only 1990s-vintage basic 911, which rely on callers’ knowing where they are and being able to communicate that.

“On cell phones, we do not have an exact location,” said Ken White, operations manager of the 911 center in Tulsa, Okla., which has asked for state help to pay for an E911 upgrade that will show a cell phone’s location and call-back number. Such information often isn’t now available, even though a little more than half of Tulsa’s 911 calls come in from cell phones, about the same proportion as they do nationwide.

E911 doesn’t solve all problems

Meanwhile, the 90 percent of systems that do relay a phone’s position don’t ensure that emergency crews will be able to find the caller.

For one thing, the accuracy of location data generally drops in rural areas, where older, less-advanced cell towers can be farther apart, the Congressional Research Service found in a background report for lawmakers late last year. And it can drop in densely populated cities, where a phone might show up as being at 1 Main St., with no indication of whether it’s on the seventh or the 77th floor.

Depending on the technology a carrier is using — GPS or tower triangulation — FCC regulations allow a margin of error of up to 300 meters for some E911-capable phones. That’s longer than three football fields.

The FCC also leaves it up to carriers to determine whether they’re complying with the E911 mandate. One way they can do that, it says, is “to prevent reactivation of older handsets” — in other words, when your contract runs out, the carrier can insist that you pay for a newer phone if you want to keep your service.

Analog system outdated in digital world

But the biggest obstacle is the underlying architecture of the 911 system itself.

The nonprofit 911 Industry Alliance found last year that most 911 systems still rely on older analog hardware. Even digital E911 operations are usually built — “or, perhaps more accurately, ‘jury-rigged’” — on analog platforms that reflect “the legacy telephone technology of the time the system was first designed,” it said.

That would be the late 1960s, when 911 service was optional and ran on circuits run by a single local land line provider. Today, call centers operate under scores of different local and state regulations that must accommodate not only land lines and traditional wireless phones, but also pre-paid mobile phones and Internet devices, all offered by dozens of deregulated carriers.

The result, the alliance said, is a fragmented system that leaves “many wireless callers without the benefits of location identification information when they call 911.”

That means a land line is still your best option in an emergency, NENA and AT&T said last week in launching a campaign urging Americans to keep some form of wired service for making emergency calls.

“The more choices you have to reach 911 in an emergency, the better, and a corded land line phone should be one of those options,” said Brian Fontes, chief executive of NENA.

More Americans dropping land lines

Americans, however, are increasingly disregarding that message.

Since 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked Americans about their cell phone service when it conducts its twice-yearly National Health Interview Survey. The number of U.S. households that have ditched their land lines completely has risen consistently.

For the first time, wireless-only households hit 20 percent during the second half of last year, the CDC said, compared with 3.5 percent in 2003. Those households include nearly 19 percent of all children in the United States, the CDC found.

And when one of those families has to call 911, “they are apt to be disappointed — and left in the lurch,” the 911 Industry Alliance concluded.

“Consumers are often unaware of the limitations of 911 service in various geographic areas or with respect to certain technologies,” the alliance said, something it said should be “a grave source of concern for policymakers and industry professionals.”

NBC stations KJRH of Tulsa, Okla., and KYTV of Springfield, Mo., contributed to this report.

More of my opinion

Are not the phone companies the ones cleaning up as far as profits and dollars?

1.) It's very confusing and I'm not sure any one is (if you know, and you're reading this please enlighten me) regulating how the fees are being spent that we pay on our cellular phone bills each month for 9-1-1 service. Where does that money go? We've been trying to figure that out. It doesn't seem to be going to the 9-1-1 centers. It's either going into fat boys and girls profits or into better cell phones. Maybe it should be going to 9-1-1 centers. Or maybe to newer towers or more towers in rural areas? Just a thought! Sorry to sound sarcastic but..... geesh! This is important!

2.) Lucky phone companies. If people are "stuck" keeping their landlines then the phone companies get to continue to send TWO bills each month. We're pretty much blackmailed into keeping our landlines if we want 9-1-1 service. Call me a conspiracy theorist but I wonder why should the phone companies step up and come up with a solution? Because it's the right thing to do and because it will save lives? If that were the case, they would have found a way by now IMNSHO.

3.) As the economy worsens and I can't imagine it getting any worse, but still it is.... people have to start cutting back where they can as far as expenditures. Mark and I got rid of landline months ago. Why? Because we simply can't afford it and we pray to God (that is at the times we believe s/he exists) that if we ever have to call 9-1-1 we're capable of telling the call taker where we are. If we can't! Well. I guess we're going to be S O L.

I do like this part:

Cell Phones and 911

Industry groups offer this guidance for cell phone users who find themselves needing emergency assistance:

Know your device

911 can be contacted from nearly every device that can make phone calls, but callback and location information can vary drastically among technologies and between regions. It is your job to know the benefits and limitations of various technologies. Contact your service provider for more information.

Memorize important information

Being able to tell the 911 operator your address (your parents’ names if you are a child) and your phone number will get help faster. If you aren’t at home and don’t know the address where you are, look around for a street sign or a building with a name on it.

911 isn’t as cool as you are

You can’t yet text or IM “9-1-1” to reach emergency services. That technology is in the testing phase, but for now you have to make an old-fashioned phone call if you want to talk to 911.

Adapted from “Making 911 Work for You,” a publication of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, CTIA/The Wireless Foundation and the National Emergency Number Association.

Sorry for ranting. But I just can't help myself sometimes! I wish I didn't sound so angry and frustrated. I wish people could see what's going on and what needs to be done. I know there are many people out there doing their best to see what can be done. But, to me, it seems to be taking forever and I'm so worried more people are going to die because we can't seem to find an answer with the phone companies. It's terribly terribly sad.

I apologize. Just know if you're calling 9-1-1 from a cell phone, please, be able to tell them your location.

Aside to Kevin: I love you. You definitely "get it". That is so appreciated:o)