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Wireless World: Troubling gaps in 'e-911'

This is an expose of the problems of 911 on mobile phones.
Wireless World: Troubling gaps in 'e-911'
By Gene Koprowski
United Press International

Published 9/10/2004 10:41 AM

A weekly series by UPI examining emerging wireless telecommunications technologies.


CHICAGO, Sep. 10 (UPI) -- A driver crashes his Mercedes C230 while on a rural route in upstate New York. Severely injured, he manages to dial 911 on his mobile phone. The dispatcher asks him what his specific location is, but, dazed, he has no particular details that can help emergency personnel. The driver passes out and dies before the paramedics reach him.

This scenario is more likely than most mobile phone users realize, experts told United Press International, noting many public service departments around the United States still are not equipped to pinpoint the precise location of mobile, or e-911 calls, a decade after the federal government first eyed the issue.

"E-911 for wireless has been a long time in coming," Mike Amarosa, who once ran the 911 emergency response system for New York City, told UPI.

The technology on which most 911 networks operate is from the 1950s. Landline phones have been able to access emergency operators since the 1960s, and police and fire departments can tell the number and physical location of the caller through computer-mapping technology.

"But wireless 911 has quite a history too," Dan Hoskins, senior vice president of sales at Intrado, a supplier to the emergency services industry, located in Longmont, Colo., told UPI.

Back in 1994, the Federal Communications Commission first asked for comments on mobile 911. By 1996, the FCC had issued a ruling, requiring mobile callers to be identified by their location, as the wireless world was emerging. But the public -- incorrectly -- assumes that the services available for mobile 911 calls are as accurate as those for landlines. That is ironic, because many people have purchased mobile phones for their purported safety benefits.

"When you pick up the cell phone, and dial 911, you expect two things," said John McCarthy, director of public sector sales at MapInfo, in Troy, N.Y. "You expect that they will know where you are, and you expect that you will be routed to the right person. They can't track you if you're driving down the expressway at 70 miles per hour. The perceptions that consumers have about mobile 911 are not accurate."

That is because there is a mixture of old-fashioned analog and modern digital systems in police and fire call centers, experts said.

Another complicating factor is the emergence of wireless Voice Over Internet Protocol -- also known as VOIP -- or mobile Internet telephony, and mobile Instant Messaging technology.

"The system can't handle the changes in technology," McCarthy told UPI.

Technology companies are developing an array of solutions that may help alleviate the problems, however, and are attempting to make the next phase of mobile 911 available to all callers by the end of 2005.

"There are handset solutions, which have one set of guidelines, and network solutions that have another set of guidelines," said Amarosa, who today is senior vice president of TruePosition, a mobile communications firm in King of Prussia, Pa., near Philadelphia.

The new handsets are being built with special computer chips that will allow police and fire personnel to find the precise latitude and longitude of each caller and display it on their computer screen at the dispatch center.

"Where it is going to get interesting is the next generation of cellular handsets," said Pierce Reid, vice president of marketing at Qovia Inc., a mobile communications company in Frederick, Md. "They're building (global positioning system) chips into cell phones," he told UPI. "That allows callers to be located by a triangulation of signals from some of the cell towers."

Public safety personnel would be able to locate callers by measuring the time it takes for calls to travel to the different cell towers.

WiFi developers are pushing the technology along.

"Service providers are worried about the liability perspective," Reid said. "They are worried about having someone on their domain dialing 911 and having the ambulance drive up to the wrong place and they die. They want to provide a lifeline."

The Department of Homeland Security -- created by the Congress and the Bush administration in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- also is moving mobile 911 forward.

"There's so much money out there for this," said Janice Baugh, a telecommunications consultant with the Dietrich Lockard Group in St. Louis. "It's like the universal service fund. Homeland Defense is moving this along. The federal government is budgeting this, and state and local law enforcement will have to share that. That's why every vendor has a solution."

She noted, however, that the wireless telephone industry is going to have to agree on technology standards. Otherwise, solutions offered by AT&T and its vendors might not work the same way as those offered by Cingular Wireless and its vendors -- and vice versa.

"The next phase of technology is for geo-location, and there is going to have to be a standard," Baugh told UPI. "Everyone has to be on board, even though there are hardware and software solutions. If they don't get along, long-term e-911 will be a mess."

Long-term, mobile 911 capability actually could alter the way emergency services are provided to citizens.

"About 50 percent of calls that come into 911 centers are from mobile phones," Amarosa said.

That is only going to grow, experts said. As mobile 911 becomes more advanced, accurate medical information may be relayed from a crash site before the paramedics even arrive.

"Hospitals will know whether to send a helicopter, or not," Amarosa said.

That will result in dramatic cost savings, because the cost of dispatching a chopper can be as high as $10,000 per emergency response, Amarosa said. Imagine the cost savings if 10 unnecessary chopper trips per year are eliminated for each hospital with a trauma unit, he added.

Because many small counties cannot afford the massive expenditure needed to install the mobile technology for 911 operations, McCarthy reckons that state governments will develop statewide centers to handle the calls and route them to the proper locale. McCarthy calls this "gathering intelligence" on mobile callers.

"It will be a situation of wireline, VOIP, and wireless calls, with routing based on the actual location of the caller, not on the cell tower," McCarthy said. "That will have a snowball effect and provide a big benefit to taxpayers."


Gene Koprowski covers telecommunications for UPI Science News. E-mail sciencemail (at)

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