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When an emergency strikes, will 911 be there to help?

You are probably one of the millions of people who carry their cell phones at all times in case of an emergency. You may think your cell enhances your personal safety. But outdated systems nationwide are unable to trace wireless calls, meaning public safety agencies may not be able to find you if you are hurt on the side of the road.

Stephen Seitz, government affairs director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), estimates that 200 million calls are made to 911 in the U.S. each year. Wireless calls make up 33% of that number, reports the Federal Communications Commission. In certain communities, that figure increases to 50% or more.

In general, 911 is used to summon help from police, paramedics, or other emergency response units, Most jurisdictions also urge citizens to use 911 to report crimes in progress. At the emergency call center, calls come through a computerized phone system and automatically go to the next available operator, who then verifies the caller's location, determines the nature of the emergency, and decides which emergency response teams should be notified. Some areas also have a 511 or 311 number to handle nonemergency calls.

In the past, most 911 calls where emergency personnel weren't able to respond came from cell phone users. According to Seitz, 65% of 911 call centers nationwide lack the ability to locate wireless callers. Such frightening statistics prompted the FCC to get involved and set new requirements that will help emergency personnel respond better.

New technology known as Enhanced 911 pinpoints cell phone locations using one of two methods: global positioning system chips that communicate with satellites or software that triangulates a phone's position using signals sent to cell towers. An order issued by the FCC requires all wireless carriers and cell phone manufacturers to provide the capability for automatically identifying to emergency dispatchers the location from which a wireless call is being made. Timing for implementing the E911 requirements is divided into two phases.

David Koon, a New York state assemblyman, has supported statewide efforts to appropriate money for implementing E911 technology. Koon's 19-year-old daughter, Jennifer, a student at John Fisher College, was abducted from a suburban shopping plaza, assaulted, and murdered. Jennifer called 911 from her car phone, but operators struggled to figure out where she was located as they listened to the attack occur.

"The biggest problem that I have found is most people don't know that their cells phones can't be traced," says Koon. "A lot of people are doing away with their home phones and they don't realize that their cell phone is not traceable." Koon pushed to get a $100 million loan through the state budget to pay for E911. "We should be in full compliance by the end of this year," he adds. So far, roughly 73% of U.S. states have met Phase I requirements while only 35% have met Phase II. Implementing the system nationwide could cost as much as $8 billion, NENA reports. To learn more, visit or
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Title Annotation:Consumer Life; tracing cell phones
Author:Moore-Thorpe, Angela P.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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