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A short circuit for cellular E911

Can first responders find you in an emergency? Don't count on it just yet, despite years of work by wireless providers.

It's very likely that when you call 911 from your cell phone in an emergency, the operator on the other end won't automatically know your location.

This is despite the fact that most U.S. mobile phone companies have met a Federal Communications Commission mandate to provide location information to 911 operators for millions of wireless subscribers. After years of work, the wireless phone industry is still a long way from full deployment of what is known as enhanced 911 service, or E911.

With the exception of only a few companies, wireless carriers have met obligations set forth by the FCC to get their networks and phones ready to provide the service to 95 percent of their subscribers.

"Significant progress is being made. It could all be happening more quickly, but there are a lot of things to be done to make sure this works."
--Roger Hixson, technical issues director for NENA

But getting the carriers to support location technology only solves half the problem. The other half requires getting the nation's 6,140 emergency call centers or Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) outfitted with the technology and databases to make use of this location information. So far, progress on that front is taking longer than many in the safety community had hoped.

About 69 percent of the 6,140 call centers have implemented the final phase for E911, according to the National Emergency Number Association, or NENA, a group that promotes 911 research, planning, training and education. These call centers cover about 80 percent of the U.S. population.

"Significant progress is being made," said Roger Hixson, technical issues director for NENA. "It could all be happening more quickly, but there are a lot of things to be done to make sure this works. Getting the carriers ready was a long process, and finding the funding and coordinating the local PSAPs is also going to take some time."

The FCC has mapped out compliance to E911 in two phases. Phase 1 means the caller's number is displayed for the dispatcher, so the dispatcher can dial back if the call is dropped. Phase 2 means the caller's approximate location is displayed or mapped so a dispatcher can easily direct emergency personnel.

The FCC estimates that of the 200 million calls made to 911 each year, about a third of them are from callers using a mobile phone. In many communities, over half of 911 calls are placed from cell phones. With more than 220 million wireless subscribers in the nation, it makes sense that a growing number of emergency calls would come from cell phones. Roughly 30 percent of people who bought a cell phone in the past 12 months did so for emergencies, according to Consumer Reports.

Making sure that call centers are ready to accept location information for these emergency calls is critical, say experts. Callers using wireless phones are more likely than callers from a landline phone to not know where they are when they're calling for help.

Even though many state and county governments know the rewards of implementing such systems quickly, it can be difficult to come up with the money and navigate the politics to make sure the implementation happens.

Hixson said upgrading a single PSAP to accept calls with location information could cost between $150,000 and $200,000. If databases that hold information about local highways or the area's topography haven't been built and correlated with other emergency databases, the cost could soar to $1 million per PSAP, he said.

As of October, every state except Missouri had passed legislation to fund E911 deployment and maintenance. This compares with five years ago when 10 states did not have funding in place for E911.

But even with most states' E911 funding in place, it will take time before the funds are built up enough to begin upgrades. The way E911 funding works is that states approve a tax or a surcharge attached to wireless customers' bills. Without legislative approval, this tax often can't be levied.

Once the funds are in place it can still take over a year to implement the technology, Hixson said. First, local officials need to spend three or four months planning the implementation. Then it could take another four to six months to actually put the technology in place and test it.

Some PSAPs are operated and staffed by local police and fire departments, while others are run by counties. The success of these implementations is largely due to how well agencies within the county and state cooperate. Ultimately, this affects how quickly states are able to roll out services.

For example, North Dakota was one of the first states to have E911 fully implemented throughout the state. But its neighbor South Dakota is lagging. In fact, state officials there recently commissioned a $50,000 study to examine the state's 911 services, according to a recent Associated Press story.

"We were very fortunate to have an association of counties working on this issue early and making the commitment to have E911 up and running," said Tony Clark, president of the North Dakota Public Service Commission. "They created a very strong, centralized program. But I know it can be tough to get this done. It takes a lot of political will."

Because of these issues, it's difficult for people to know when they can expect emergency dispatchers to know their location when they call 911 for assistance. Experts say the best thing to do is to assume that the call center will have no information about your location.

"Most people don't care about 911 until they have to use it," Hixson said. "And when they want to use it, the expectation is that E911 will be universal. But the truth is, we're still years from that."