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Cellular gets mixed reviews on 911 calls

For those who sell cellular telephones, 911 has become a magic number.

A brochure for Nokia phones states "emergency help is one touch away" and shows a worried pregnant mother on a dark street. In television advertisements, Airtouch Communications describes a cellular phone as "your own guardian angel." An industry group gives out "lifesaver" awards to customers who dial 911 to summon help for others. And in surveys, most new cellular customers cite safety as their main reason for signing up.

But for those on the receiving end of 911 calls, cellular phones have been a mixed blessing.

In a 911 trade journal article last year, a paramedic described three recent attempts to report different emergencies by cellular phone; he had trouble getting through each time. Dispatchers complain that cellular calls that get cut off can't be dialed back automatically. And unlike calls from wire-based phones, cellular calls don't transmit the location of the caller.

"With cellular phones, people have the capability to report emergencies like they never have before," says S. Robert Miller, 911 director for New Jersey. "But if we don't know where they are, it may do little good."

Now the Federal Communications Commission is considering requiring cellular providers to improve their 911 service. The industry is resisting, saying the costs of what the FCC is proposing are too high and the technology is unproven.

In the 30 years since AT&T Corp. announced it would make 911 the national number for police, fire and medical emergencies, some 90 percent of telephone lines have gained access to 911. Typically, the call goes to a dispatch center set up by several local governments. And most centers have now added "enhanced 911" technology that puts a caller's location and telephone number on the dispatcher's computer screen.

For reasons of technology and convenience, cellular companies and local officials often route cellular 911 calls to other places, such as a state-police barracks. And the data base of numbers and addresses that supplies the location of a fixed telephone is of little use in tracking a phone that constantly moves.

When Amtrak's Sunset Limited train derailed into a swamp outside Mobile, Ala., in 1993, one cellular call put the phrase "Downtown Mobile" on a dispatcher's screen, while another showed "mobile phone." This year, a landscaper in an unfamiliar part of Ocean County, N.J., dialed 911 from his truck's cellular phone to report that a stranger had collapsed; it took several minutes for emergency crews to figure out the location of the heart-attack victim, who died.

Cellular executives say they're trying on their own to find a way to deduce the location of cellular 911 callers. They add that they're working on a "comprehensive solution" that would transmit callers' blood types and other useful information as well.

Under the FCC's proposal, wireless phone providers _ including new personal communications services _ would have to give 911 calls priority over other calls and have technology in place within five years to pinpoint the location of 911 callers within 125 meters (about 400 feet).

Wireless representatives say it could take five years just to develop technical standards for locating callers. And some doubt the technology is even necessary. In comments filed with the FCC, the Rural Cellular Association says most 911 callers are uninjured passers-by who know where they are, and claims it's "a matter of conjecture" to say cellular customers want enhanced 911 services.

Joseph Blaschka, a Seattle-area emergency-communications consultant, disagrees. After spotting a car fire near a supermarket recently, he spent several minutes trying to explain to a 911 dispatcher where he was. After hanging up, he saw a pay phone and called again. His location popped up on a computer screen, and the dispatcher realized the firetruck was heading for the wrong Safeway, Blaschka says.

Making matters worse, cellular 911 calls sometimes get bounced across county or even state lines. In February, Alaska authorities say, it took several hours for an Army helicopter to find a severely injured snowmobiler whose cellular 911 call had been handled by a faraway center where dispatchers didn't know the terrain.

Of course, such callers are better off than they would be without a cellular phone. In most markets, cellular 911 calls are free, and in some cases, they get through even if the phone isn't signed up for any service.

But Laverne Hogan, director of 911 service for the Houston area, worries that service for everyone will suffer as dispatchers spend more and more time with cellular calls, which she says take two to three times longer to process. The lack of automatic location detection also makes it harder for dispatchers to weed out redundant or fictitious calls. New Jersey officials say one stolen cellular phone produced 92 prank emergency calls, one of which led to a traffic accident that killed a police officer in Paramus.

Since more than 25-million cellular phones are in use already, the industry is unlikely to embrace any technology requiring changes to the instruments _ such as location devices that bounce signals off satellites. Other solutions would require big changes in existing cell sites or the signals phones send to the sites.

"We sat on our fat fannies 11 years ago when cellular first came out," concedes William Stanton, who heads a national group of emergency-number administrators. In later years, cellular companies were too distracted by their rapid expansion to pay much heed to 911 officials.

Zach D. Taylor, who oversees 911 service in Central Oklahoma, says "there was no response" when the local officials who established 911 service in 1989 tried to get the two area cellular companies involved. More recently, he says, the carriers have worked to get cellular calls routed to the closest dispatch station rather than to Oklahoma City. But he says modernization has been "tedious" because he has to deal with corporate lawyers in Seattle, where AT&T Corp.'s McCaw cellular unit is based.

One big question is who will pay for upgrading so that 911 centers can handle cellular calls better. Most telephone bills include surcharges that help phone companies and local governments pay for 911 improvements; a few states have slapped similar surcharges on cellular customers, and others, including Texas and Florida, are considering doing so.

John Cusack, who runs a cellular-funded program in Chicago to teach teenagers how to report emergencies from local phones, notes that disputes over funding have kept Chicago from getting full 911 service for years. "Sometimes you feel a sense that you know public safety is the underlying issue, but money underlies the conversation," he says.