Emergency cell calls pose unseen danger
Aug. 24, 2002
Ken Brown, director of the new Glynn-Brunswick 911 Center (Brunswick, Ga.), is troubled.
Despite the state-of-the-art technology of his new dispatch center and all of the improved capabilities it provides, the center is having problems receiving emergency calls made from cellular phones.
The problems began just after 1 a.m. Aug. 1, when local police and emergency services switched to the new 800 MHz radio system.
“Many calls from cell phones are not getting routed to the proper number,” Brown said.
As Brown will tell you, the problems associated with cell phone emergency calls are complicated and technical, as well as numerous.
The most pressing issue, however, is the fact that some emergency calls made from cell phones in Glynn County do not always reach their intended destination, the 911 dispatch center.
Instead of routing 911 calls to the new dispatch center through a Bell South switch, several wireless carriers are sending calls to the old, now defunct, emergency number. According to Brown, those calls are then rerouted to the main Glynn County Police Department number.
“Those people will get a recording saying, ‘If you have an emergency, dial 911.’ Well, they did dial 911 and that is what they got,” said Brown.
In that situation, callers should dial 6 to be transferred to the 911 dispatch center.
Some cell phone users who call 911, depending on the company providing the service, are transferred directly to the Georgia State Patrol.
Brown had been working since March to persuade wireless carriers in Glynn County to implement Phase One, which calls for all cell-made 911 calls to be routed through the proper Bell South 911 switch. About half the carriers were unresponsive to his repeated requests until earlier last week, when public pressure brought all seven companies to the negotiating table.
“It takes about six months to implement Phase I,” said Brown. “I wanted to have it done by Aug. 1, and we are pretty much just starting the process at this point.”
In addition to properly routing 911 calls, Phase I will allow emergency dispatchers to know the number of the cell phone the call originated from, the name of the phone user and the tower location that the call activated.
Unlike calls made from land phone lines, emergency dispatchers rely on cell callers to inform them of their location. Even with Phase I implemented, emergency dispatchers will still be unable to pinpoint caller locations.
Another important aspect of Phase I is the collection of the $1 surcharge that the law requires wireless carriers to charge each month for the improvement of 911 service and technology. According to Brown, some wireless carriers are not collecting the money, and others are collecting the money but not turning it over to the county.
“We have two problems where the surcharge is concerned,” said Brown. “It is an enforcement problem and an auditing problem.”
While implementing Phase I is the first step to providing effective 911 service for cellular phone callers, Brown is hopeful that Phase II will be put into place in the not-too-distant-future.
Phase II calls for wireless carriers to have technology that would allow emergency dispatchers to pick up a range of latitude and longitude used to help locate the position of cellular-made 911 calls.
Despite all the improvements in emergency response that will be made when Phase I is implemented, one glaring problem will still remain: not all 911 calls made from cell phones in Glynn County will necessarily be answered by the local dispatch center.
“Cellular calls to 911 are routed based on the tower site that the call activates,” said Brown. “If you are in Glynn County having a heart attack and you call 911 on your cell phone and activate a tower in Brantley, you are out of luck.”
In situations like the one described by Brown, dispatchers rely on callers to tell them their location, so the call can be rerouted to the proper dispatchers.
According to Brown, some local 911 calls can be picked up as far away as Savannah or Jacksonville.
“Phase I is not going to have any effect on the calls that get picked up by other counties,” said Brown. “People just need to be prepared to tell us where they are when they call.”
According to Brown, the best thing for cell phone users to do is be aware of the situation, and be prepared to dial 6 should they receive the Glynn County Police Department recording.
(Copyright 2002, Brunswick News, Brunswick, GA. All rights reserved. Republished with permission.)