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Originally published July 11, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 11, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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911 and cellphones: patching a risky gap

Precious minutes are being lost when land lines aren't used and dispatchers can't pinpoint the caller's location. Call centers are upgrading technology to fix that.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Hiding in a closet from her abusive boyfriend, a terrified woman used a cellphone to call a King County 911 dispatcher.

Because the woman was unfamiliar with the area and called from a cellphone, it would have taken dispatchers precious minutes to figure out where to send help.

As it turned out, police were never dispatched. The phone went dead, and the woman's location could not be determined.

The situation illustrates a growing problem facing 911 dispatchers who each year receive an increasing number of calls from cellphones. Of the nearly 2.2 million calls received by King County 911 dispatchers last year, about 1.3 million were from wireless callers.

When a 911 dispatcher receives an emergency call from a regular telephone, or land line, the caller's phone number and address are automatically displayed on the operator's computer screen.

But when the caller uses a cellphone, emergency-call-center dispatchers have only an approximate location of the source of the call. As a result, police, medics and firefighters might not be dispatched as quickly to life-threatening emergencies as they would be for calls made on a land line.

King County's 911 call centers, and nearly every other urban emergency-dispatch center across the nation, are in the midst of upgrading dispatch systems to address the problems associated with the growing number of emergency calls made on cellphones. The cost for the King County upgrade hasn't been determined, officials say, but it will be in the millions and funded by an existing tax on phones.

Once the technological upgrades are completed by 2009, the county's 911 centers will be able to use location software to accurately pinpoint cellphone callers. The goal is to come within 9 meters of the source of a call.

"The intent is to have the best accuracy possible to find somebody," said Robert Oenning, E911 (the "E" stands for enhanced) administrator for Washington state. "The accuracy we get on land line is your front door. For wireless, the accuracy varies widely. Our hope is with the evolution of location technologies we get better and better and better."

"Extremely frustrating"

In Washington state, 911 dispatchers, including those for Seattle's police and fire departments, can locate wireless calls only by longitude and latitude.

"It's extremely frustrating," said Marlys Davis, coordinator for King County E911. "Someone needs help and we're unable to provide it."

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Dispatchers also have struggled to reach cellphone callers in high-rise buildings because the dispatchers can't pinpoint where in the building the callers are.

According to the National Emergency Number Association, nearly 50 percent of all 911 calls made in the U.S. last year were from cellphones, a figure that is higher in King County.

But of the more than 60 percent of cellphone calls received by 911 dispatchers in King County in 2006, only a quarter of them were from callers who knew enough about where they were to guide police and emergency crews directly to them, Davis said.

Other changes

Upgrading 911 systems to better pinpoint cellphone calls is one of several ways emergency-call centers are trying to adapt to changing technology.

Oenning said 911 centers across the country also are upgrading to handle Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls — which let users transmit conversations over the Internet.

Across Washington state, as well as in Los Angeles and New York City, 911 centers are also looking to get software that will let them accept text, video and photo messaging from cellphone callers wanting to give dispatchers or first responders more information about the situation.

Oenning said the 65 dispatch centers in the state that handle local 911 calls will have updated technology to let cell or VoIP callers deliver their messages more quickly. The upgraded systems will also let dispatchers relay information to police, medics and firefighters electronically instead of telling first responders orally.

Patrick Halley, governmental-affairs director for the Virginia-based National Emergency Number Association, singles out teens as a group that would benefit from the 911 text-messaging upgrade.

"If you look at teenagers, they text message more than they talk. If you do a poll, many of them will say that they think they could text message 911," Halley said.

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), as of June 2006, there were 172 million subscribers nationally to land-based telephone lines. There were 217.4 million wireless subscribers, a figure that had increased about 13 percent since June 2005.

While there hasn't been a federal mandate for all 911 centers in the country to make all the technological upgrades, the FCC has ordered dispatch centers to provide services for VoIP customers — something that 911 centers are unable to do under their old systems, said Frith Sellers, E911 coordinator for Snohomish County. The centers can get the calls but not pinpoint the location.

Paying for change

Oenning wouldn't say how much the technological upgrades will cost each 911 center, only that they will be expensive.

Washington's counties and the state plan to pay for the change through a nearly 15-year-old tax on each cellphone and telephone land line; the tax generates an average of about $17 million a year, Oenning said. Some phone users are paying as much as 70 cents a month in the tax.

But, Sellers said, the annual $17 million is dwindling.

"We're seeing our landline revenues decrease about 2 percent a year and wireless is starting to level off," Sellers said. "So what we're looking at is interim funding to stop the hemorrhaging and coming up with a technology-neutral long-term way to fund 911 in this state."

Sellers attributes some of the loss to the popularity of Internet phone companies such as Vonage and Skype. VoIP users aren't included in the 911 tax, she said.

King County, which dispatches for 13 agencies, saw a 600 percent increase last year in VoIP customer use, said Davis, the county's E911 coordinator.

While the technology updates are on the way, Oenning said, the state is working closely with software developers as well as with other states to create standards for how the new technology will be used.

"The process of handling calls will be completely different than how we handle them today. Every phase of how we work is going to have to be examined and potentially changed," Oenning said. "The intent is to keep our service level as high as it is now and improve it."

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

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