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Cell Phones Pose Unique Challenge to 9-1-1 Call Centers

By Dave Lucas


Albany, NY – Millions of americans are abandoning traditional land line telephones for cellphones and Voice-over-ip services through Cable TV providers... that means dialing 9-1-1 may not get you the quick response you would otherwise expect, as we hear in this report from Capital District Bureau Chief Dave Lucas...

The national 9-1-1 system dates back to the late 1960s and is based on the old Bell telephone landline system...the FCC estimates 1/3 of all 911 calls nationwide are placed from cell phones. Patrick Halley,Director of Government Affairs for NENA, the National Emergency Number Association, points out that cellphone and VOIP customers mistakenly assume they'll be easily located if they need help.

One of the biggest problems with 9-1-1 calls from cellphones and VOIP is that the calls get misrouted to the wrong 9-1-1 center. Half of the 9-1-1 calls that Vermont dispatch centers receive originate from cell phones. In August of 2008 a woman in Wells, Vermont was beaten to death - responders lost 34 minutes because the woman's 9-1-1 calls traveled across Lake Champlain whre they were picked up by emergency services in New York State.

NENA recently announced the formation of an emergency response organization consortium involving wireless experts with the intent of securing federal stimulus money to upgrade 9-1-1 operations with broadband technology that would allow callers to send text and video messages to 9-1-1 centers.

Verizon works with emergency services centers to recognize out-of-area cell calls and send them on to their local responders... but other glitches can affect 9-1-1 services... a tree fell on a power line in South Troy: the resulting equipment failure delayed the transmission of some emergency calls Wednesday night into Thursday morning in Rennselaer County, affecting the emergency response center there. That facility handles 750-thousand calls a year. County Exeutive Kathy Jimino says a back-up plan was implemented where East Greenbush dispatchers fielded land-line calls and State Police handled cellphone calls. Apparently, a glitch occurred where Verizon didn't notify the county that a "vault" used to connect 911 and seven-digit telephone lines to the county Bureau of Emergency Services and county jail lost power. Jimino says Verizon has been on the scene and working with the county to correct the problem.

A proposal pending before the Federal Communications Commission calls for cellular telephone carriers to be able to locate 95 per cent of their calls within each county of any state.