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Cell Phone Carriers May Not Meet Emergency Locator Deadline

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

April 11, 2001 (Washington) -- As Mark Taylor drifted into anaphylactic shock following a bee sting last November, he punched 911 into his cell phone. But even though the emergency call went through, Taylor couldn't tell rescue personnel where he was; he'd pulled off the road in rural North Carolina.


Fortunately, Lori Sloane, the dispatcher who took the call, used bits and pieces of information, including the wail of a rescue vehicle's siren passing by Taylor's car to pinpoint his whereabouts. Her quick thinking saved a life and earned her a "Hero" award from the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO), a coalition of emergency and rescue groups.


"We need to have a system where technology helps professionals like Lori do her job," says Angelo Salvucci, MD, who heads emergency services for California's Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. Salvucci's comments came at a news conference here Wednesday to urge the telecommunications industry to deploy locator technology for cell phones.


"I don't care how it gets there, I only care that the location comes in on your call when you call for help," Thera Bradshaw, APCO's first vice president and executive director of San Francisco's emergency communications department.


Whether you know it or not, there's a big difference between your land line at home and a mobile phone. Virtually everywhere in America, your home or office phone can be identified by emergency officials. However, the exact opposite is true for cell phones -- at least for the moment -- and that can have tragic consequences.


Salvucci tells the story of a young woman who drove off the road into a ditch and sustained severe head injuries. A Good Samaritan called 911 on his mobile phone, but he didn't know how to provide accurate directions.


"So on the recording of the call, you could hear her screaming and him not being able to tell the dispatcher where he was. She died before anyone could get her to the hospital," says Salvucci.


It's estimated that there are currently 110-million wireless phones capable of calling 911 today in the U.S., and some 115,000 calls come in to so-called Public Safety Answering Points around the country daily. Up to half of all emergency calls in the U.S. are now wireless.


The Federal Communications Commission has set mandatory deadlines for carriers to phase in location-capable handsets. The agency says the cell phone carriers must start selling the devices on Oct. 1.


However, there are 5,500 Public Safety Answering Points around the country, and the FCC's Jim Schlichtling says that there won't be a one-size-fits-all approach. Some providers will offer a global positioning system, and that would call for a phone modification. Other companies might opt for a "triangulation" approach, finding a user's longitude and latitude by running the signal through ground towers. In any case, the conversion won't be cheap and consumers will probably pick up at least some of the tab.

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