A debate currently is being waged as to whether and how voice-over-IP service providers can offer enhanced 911 services — which identify the location of the caller — to their customers. On page 40, senior writer Donny Jackson reports on the debate, spending considerable time on the technology challenges that stand in the way of full-fledged E911 for VoIP users.

Public-safety officials fear that history is about to repeat itself. Little or no attention was paid to 911 in the nascent stages of the cellular wireless industry, to disastrous consequences. The vast majority of public-safety answering points nationwide still are unable to locate wireless 911 callers as mandated by the FCC's Phase II requirements, and it will be years before the pendulum swings in the opposite direction.

In the meantime, people are dying. In January 2005, a young Nebraska couple — both were in their 20s — died in a snowstorm after dispatchers couldn't locate them, even though the couple called 911 five times from their wireless phone.

It should be noted, in fairness to the dispatchers, that toxicology reports from the autopsies indicated the couple had “higher than therapeutic amounts” of methamphetamine in their systems at the time of their deaths, according to a report by KSAT-TV in Omaha, Neb. The report quoted a Creighton University Medical Center physician, who said that high levels of methamphetamine — which can be prescribed for weight control or attention deficit disorder — can cause disorientation, anxiety and hallucinations.

If the two victims indeed were disoriented, it would be easy to absolve dispatchers of their inability to locate them. But that's before considering that no PSAP in the state of Nebraska currently is capable of locating a wireless customer who makes a 911 call. State Senator Tom Baker, who chairs the Nebraska legislature's transportation and telecommunications committee, introduced legislation eight days after the couple died that would increase the state's wireless E911 surcharge to $1.50 per month from the current 50¢.

Judging from the news reports and transcripts I've seen, dispatchers did what they could for the couple given the circumstances. But if they had Phase II-compliant technology with which to work, the couple's alleged disorientation wouldn't have been a factor, and they might be alive today.

It has been said that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. It's a lesson that everyone associated with the development of VoIP would be wise to heed. Lives are at stake.