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Many people purchase cellphones for security, not realizing that if an emergency does happen, they may not be found …
Last summer, I spent the day at a PSAP observing the management of radio traffic and listening in on the dispatchers’ 9-1-1 calls. A few calls to the center were, of course, landline calls, and the caller’s location appeared on the ALI screen. However, most calls that came in during that long afternoon were from cellphones.
The dispatchers explained that Good Samaritans often call when someone is in trouble — an accident occurs or a car breaks down — but many of the callers cannot give their location. At first that was difficult for me to comprehend: How could people not know where they are? Then I remembered the last time I tried to find my way home from downtown Kansas City and ended up in a less-than-safe part of town.
Absence of location capability jeopardizes public safety. Many people purchase cellphones for security, not realizing that if an emergency does happen, they may not be found if they cannot identify or describe their location. In February, a woman was trapped in her car after it ran off the Florida Turnpike and began to sink in a canal. She dialed 9-1-1, but she couldn’t tell the call-taker where she was. She died.
ALI was designed for landline phones. It doesn’t work yet with all cellphones, and most of the public doesn’t realize that. In 1996, under pressure from the public safety community, the FCC adopted E9-1-1 location rules and set Oct. 1, 2001, as the deadline for cellular ALI capability.
But will carriers meet this deadline? AT&T Wireless and Nextel have already filed for extensions. Nextel even told the FCC that it would give $25 million to APCO for dispatch centers (like a 16th-century indulgence) if the commission would just give it more time.
Technical obstacles to creating E9-1-1 services remain, but the technology to implement the service exists. If the FCC hadn’t set some kind of deadline, the service would be delayed indefinitely, and more lives would be lost.
What is my own carrier doing to meet the deadline? Sprint PCS plans to comply with the mandate by rolling out ALI-capable handsets. Sprint observed in its implementation report that “the technological challenges to the development of such a system are phenomenal. The administrative, logistical and financial issues are even more formidable.” Sprint also pointed out that, as a service provider, it doesn’t manufacture handsets, base-station transceivers or switching equipment.
The FCC has a scarcity of engineers, and the commission often issues orders and passes rules without appreciating the technical feasibility of compliance. But the officials from APCO and NENA, who have called for this mandate, contend that the technology exists.
By forcing this issue on carriers, the FCC has the public interest at the forefront. As technology advances, carriers can update equipment and networks for more cost-effective and accurate results. They will also find ways to exploit this mandatory capability for additional applications — for profit.
In the meantime, if someone carjacks my vehicle with me in it, and if I can dial 9-1-1 without his knowing it, I’d like the dispatcher to know where we are going. We may be heading into downtown Kansas City.