FORT WAYNE – THE JOURNAL GAZETTE
CELLULAR 911 CALLS POSE SNAGS FOR POLICE
Sunday, April 25, 1999
Trapped in his car and knowing only that he had crashed in an Allen County ditch the morning of April 9, Jon Charleston talked to police on his cellular phone, begging for help.
The conversation set off a search across miles and miles of county roads as police and firefighters looked for the injured man.
But by the time they found Charleston off West Washington Center Road almost two hours later, he had no pulse.
The 49-year-old executive was pronounced dead at a local hospital early that morning.
Officials said Charleston had no idea where he was, and police were unable to track the location from where he made the call.
Although studies show the majority of people who carry cellular phones do so for safety, those using a cell phone to make an emergency call can face a variety of problems getting in touch with police.
In northeast Indiana alone, two counties have the capacity to directly receive and target 911 cellular calls in a five- to seven-mile area from where the calls were made.
But in those counties, only one cellular provider has the technology allowing the counties to do that.
All other calls get forwarded to Fort Wayne’s state police post, which has one phone line. If a caller gets through, state police often many times have to call local police near the caller, wasting more precious time in the face of an emergency.
Charleston’s phone service provider did not have the technology allowing dispatchers to locate him, officials said.
“It breaks my heart,” said John Kleinman, Allen County’s 911 administrator. “And it’s only going to get worse, because more and more people are going with cell phones.”
Counties enhance 911
On a normal, ground-based telephone call from a home or business, a 911 dispatch center can see the address of where the call originated and the names of the residents of the home, and can call the number back if the caller hangs up, Kleinman said.
But on cellular phones, 911 dispatchers can’t see where the call is coming from, unless both the police agency and the cellular telephone service provider upgrade their equipment to provide that information.
Through those enhanced 911 systems, police can receive the caller’s phone number and which cellular tower the call is coming from, giving police about a 7 seven-mile area to search. A further upgrade in 2001 will pinpoint a location within 125 yards, Kleinman said.
But so far in northeast Indiana, only Steuben and Allen county police or sheriff’s departments have the capacity to directly receive and then locate a cellular phone call.
Wells County will be upgrading its technology soon to give its sheriff’s department those capabilities, officials announced last week.
Counties aren’t required to upgrade their technology to accept enhanced 911 calls, Kleinman said.
But even if counties do have the upgraded technology, the cellular telephone service providers must provide the counties with the caller’s information.
And so far, Centennial Wireless is the only local provider in northeast Indiana to comply with a federal regulation stating that telephone service providers must provide the enhanced information if a county upgrades its technology, Kleinman said.
The other local telephone service providers — including the one Charleston was using April 9 — have not upgraded their technology to be compatible with the county’s system, Kleinman said. Their customers’ calls also go to the state police, who receive no information about where in the state the call is coming from.
There are four cellular providers in Allen County, Kleinman said. Bruce Childs, spokesman for GTE Wireless, said his company plans to upgrade its cellular towers to enhanced 911 capacity by the end of June.
The company currently has upgraded technology in eight Indiana counties, mostly in the central part of the state, he said.
More cellular calls
Cellular phone calls make up approximately one-quarter of all calls to 911 today, and that number is growing, said Deirdre Walsh, deputy director of ComCARE, a national advocacy group promoting better cellular 911 service.
That means the number of emergency calls going through the state police post has increased, because cellular calls are directed there, Master Trooper Rodger Popplewell said.
The post has one line to handle 911 calls and often gets overloaded on days when there are many traffic accidents or hazardous driving conditions, he said. The only solution would be to add more phone lines or for counties and cellular service providers to use enhanced cellular 911 systems, he said.
“For the most part, that seems to be working out on the slow days,” he said. “But if we have bad weather, the phone just rings off the hook.”
And in many cellular calls, police dispatchers have to call other police or sheriff’s departments that are closer to the scene, Popplewell said.
Walsh calls it wasting the “golden minutes” that emergency personnel have to save lives in the case of a bad accident.
She said states and regional areas, rather than each county by itself, need to work together to organize a stronger, more coordinated effort to make sure every caller receives the same quality 911 service.
“It’s not that everyone isn’t working on it, it’s just that people haven’t made it a high priority,” she said. “There needs to be statewide or regional coordination. It would happen much faster.”
Although cellular 911 phone service isn’t perfect, it is better than not being able to call in an emergency at all, said Phil Mayberry, president of Centennial’s domestic operations.
He said his company is already looking to pinpoint ing calls to a smaller radius and to in creating other cellular safety-oriented technologies, such as a system to alert police if your car crashes.
“It’s a relative thing between not having anything at all and having a less than absolutely perfect solution,” Mayberry said. “It’s better than not having anything at all. And as the technology advances, it gets to be better and better.”
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