Making a 911 call on your cell? Dispatchers may have trouble finding you

August 29, 2009 

  • Two dispatch centers serve Beaufort County. The Beaufort County Dispatch Center dispatches the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office; Beaufort, Bluffton, Port Royal and Yemassee police departments; Beaufort County EMS; and all the county's fire departments, excluding the Town of Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division and the Daufuskie Island Fire Department. A separate Hilton Head dispatch serves those departments. FEDERAL GUIDELINES The Federal Communications Commission is responsible for enforcing guidelines that require cell phone providers to give dispatch centers the location of 911 callers, which is done using one of two methods, according to Rob Kenny, spokesman for the FCC Public Safety Bureau. The GPS method uses satellite information to pinpoint the cell phone location.The triangulation method uses waves from cell towers toapproximate the phone's location. Regulations for the GPS method require cell phone carriers to provide the 911 caller's location within 150 meters for 95 percent of calls and within 75 meters for 67 percent of calls. Regulations for the triangulation method, which is not as precise, require carriers to provide the caller's location within 300 meters for 95 percent of calls and within 150 meters for 67 percent of calls. Kenny said carriers are responsible for providing this data annually. Currently, they are responsible for providing statewide data only, which could mask areas -- often rural ones -- where there are problems, he said. A new proposal at the FCC would require carriers to provide the data by county so that problem areas would be highlighted, Kenny said. Usually, local officials contact the cell phone carriers to ask them to address problems, Kenny said. If the problems remain unaddressed, officials should contact the FCC's Public Safety Bureau, he said. "If the Public Safety Bureau doesn't think it's been handled reasonably, the FCC could take action and impose fines," he said. It is rare that problems reachthat point, he said. OTHER ISSUES Dispatch centers nationally and on Hilton Head Island face a separate issue in locating cell phone 911 callers. Occasionally, the call will go to a dispatch center in an adjacent county. National experts say the problem is not uncommon and can happen when the call is placed near county borders. Officials on Hilton Head Island said callers there have ended up talking to dispatchers in the Beaufort County Dispatch Center, the Jasper County Dispatch Center and the Ridgeland Dispatch Center, among others. Beaufort County Public Safety Director William Winn said his department has seen similar problems. National experts say the mix-ups happen because the radio-based technology isn't perfect.

If you make a 911 call from a cell phone on Hilton Head Island, dispatchers might not be able to locate you immediately. And so far, experts are unable to determine exactly why.

With few exceptions, if callers use a land line, their number and address are automatically listed on the screen at the dispatch center, Hilton Head Fire & Rescue Division officials said in a recent interview.

But if a caller uses a cell phone, finding the specific location isn't always a given -- especially if they're calling from Hilton Head, the officials said.

In emergencies, seconds can mean the difference between life and death, emergency response officials say. That's why it's important for 911 dispatch centers to be able to locate callers the instant they dial in -- and for 911 calls to go to the nearest dispatch center.

The division examined all its 911 calls from Aug. 14 through Aug. 17, in response to a request from The Island Packet for statistics that illustrate the problem.

During those four days, 143 of the 300 calls to 911 handled by the Hilton Head Dispatch Center were made from cell phones. Of those, dispatchers were unable to locate the caller in 46 instances, or nearly one-third of the calls made from cell phones.

Officials said the four days are indicative of the trend they've noticed over the past several years. They couldn't immediately provide long-term data.

National experts are baffled by the problem and said further study is needed to draw conclusions.

"That's a high percentage of their calls" coming in without a specific location, said Roger Hixson, technical issues director at the National Emergency Number Association, or NENA, a group working to implement a universal emergency telephone number system.

"Somewhere, there is a problem," Hixson said.

TIME MATTERS

Even when the location is not precisely provided at dispatch, 911 callers in most cases are able to tell the dispatcher where they are, Hilton Head Fire Chief Lavarn Lucas said.

But there could be cases when the caller might be panicked, choking, suffering a stroke or heart attack alone or otherwise unable to talk, he said.

The demographics on Hilton Head might complicate existing problems, according to Susan Williams, the fire and rescue division's communications manager, who oversees dispatch center operations.

The large number of tourists on the island generally use only cell phones -- as do many temporary and part-time residents, she said.

Nationally, 90 percent of U.S. households have cell phones and 20 percent have only cell phones, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Additionally, tourists aren't always able to identify where they are on the island, department spokeswoman Joheida Fister said.

She said they often use landmarks, such as traffic circles and grocery stores, of which there are several. Dispatchers eventually are able to pinpoint the person, she said. But again, time -- even seconds -- is valuable in emergency situations, the officials said.

"It takes time to narrow it down," Lucas said. "It builds in a delay in getting the proper response to them."

The officials couldn't recall an incident in which the problem prevented an ambulance or fire truck from getting to a caller. But Williams said she faced the situation in her previous job out-of-state.

In that post, a caller dialed 911 from a cell phone, but wasn't able to speak to dispatchers, she said. The call remained open, and dispatchers sent fire trucks through neighborhoods until the sirens could be heard on the line, she said. Emergency responders had to go door-to-door until they found the man, Williams said.

POSSIBLE CAUSES

While the issue so far has perplexed local and national experts, some possible causes have been ruled out.

The island's dispatch center and local cell phone providers are equipped with current technology, which should allow cell phone carriers to locate callers using map coordinates that are transmitted back to the dispatch center, according to NENA officials, who track data nationally.The Beaufort County Dispatch Center also has the most up-to-date 911 technology, NENA officials said.

County public safety directorWinn said that although the county experiences occasional difficulty pinpointing cell phone 911 callers, the issue does not appear to be as widespread as it is on Hilton Head.

Because the county dispatch center fields many more calls than Hilton Head, he was unable to provide data on how many calls come in without a specific location.

Additionally, all six cell phone carriers operating in Beaufort County -- Alltell, AT&T, Nextel, SunCom, T-Mobile and Verizon -- converted to the latest technology at least four years ago,NENA's Hixson said.

Nonetheless, Hilton Head communications director Williams said "most of the carriers do not appear to meet the regulations" set by the Federal Communications Commission.

She said the problem seems to be spread among all the carriers.

Spokesmen from AT&T and Verizon, two of the largest cell phone providers in the area, said they hadn't heard of any problems locally and that they hadn't been contacted by local officials.

"This is the first we've heard of it," said Karen Schulz, South Carolina representative for Verizon, which uses GPS technology to locate 911 callers.

She said though some older phones do not have GPS technology, she didn't think the small number of them still being used would be enough to contribute to the more widespread problem Hilton Head officials described. She said public safety officials should contact cell phone carriers immediately when they notice problems.

"It should never be an issue to find where someone is located," she said. "This is a serious issue that we definitely want to address."

Possible problems include a lack of cell phone towers to triangulate callers and trees blocking satellites from receiving GPS data, officials said.But it's unlikely those issues would account for the significant problems on Hilton Head, Hixson said.

Hixson suggested the problem may be a highly technical one that involves the transfer of data. He said experts probably will have to address the problem locally.

"They need to see what happens at each point of the process," he said.

A NEW APPROACH

Hilton Head Chief Lucas said his department is currently drafting a new policy for systematically reporting errors locating cell phone callers.

"We haven't reported them as well as we could have in the past," he said Friday. "That will change. We're going to be more aggressive about it."

The department would forward problem numbers and carriers to an official at the county level who is responsible for the 911 database of phone listings county-wide. That official would then tell public safety director Winn -- who would contact the cell carriers directly.

Once the cell carriers are made aware of specific issues, they can begin to address them, spokesmen from the providers said.

"We want to identify and fix the problems quickly," Schulz, the Verizon spokeswoman, said. "So any reporting they could do could help us."

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