North Carolina cellphone problems could be significant beacon

Jan. 03, 2014 @ 09:28 PM

CHARLOTTE — A coalition pushing a federal agency to update wireless technology for emergency callers is pointing to problems in North Carolina to raise awareness of the issue.

Nearly half of all North Carolina calls received by 911 emergency centers in June 2013 came from wireless phones that did not include accurate information on the caller's location, according to the Find Me 911 Coalition.

The group, which represents emergency responders and 911 dispatchers across the nation, said it analyzed data submitted by the North Carolina 911 Board to the Federal Communications Commission.

"If you use a cellphone, you probably think that a 911 operator can find you if you call in an emergency. Unfortunately, that assumption could be fatally flawed," said Jamie Barnett, the coalition's director and former head of the FCC's public safety and homeland security bureau.

At issue is what happens when someone calls 911 from a cellphone. With a landline, dispatchers can provide first responders with an exact location.

But it gets complicated when someone calls 911 from a cellphone - especially if the emergency call is made indoors.

When cellphones became widely available in the early 1990s, people making emergency calls had to give their exact location. By the late 1990s, wireless carriers had technology that used the nearest cellphone towers to find a caller. As carriers began upgrading their systems and cellphones in the mid-2000s, some companies began shifting to Global Positioning System technology to locate emergency callers.

But the satellite navigation system doesn't work as well indoors, which presents a challenge to first responders, Barnett said.

The key for 911 operators is quickly finding detailed information about a caller's location.

"The carriers are saying, 'We're using the most accurate technology.' And that's true as long as there is an unobstructed view of the satellite," Barnett said. "The problem is that you don't go out in the field to call 911. You call 911 from where you are. So if you're having a heart attack from your apartment in Manhattan, or you have some kind of industrial accident in a plant with some kind of metal roof, you're not going to leave there to call 911 - and you're not going to get a GPS signal."

He said it's up the FCC to push companies to use the new technology.

Wireless carriers say they are providing accurate location information and continuing to improve technology.

But Jason Barbour, director of the 911 Center in Johnston County and a member of the N.C. 911 Board, called it a major problem, especially as more people give up landlines.

Nearly 40 percent of U.S. households rely solely on cellphones, the FCC said. Wireless phones account for about 70 percent of the nearly 240 million emergency calls made each year - and about 50 percent of those originate indoors.

"People are starting to make financial decisions about how much money am I going to spend on telephone service in my life. They're cutting off their home phones and relying simply on their cellphones. So we're going to see this problem get worse," he said.

The debate over the new technology was renewed this summer when the state of California found that cellphone calls coming into dispatch centers often lacked critical information about a caller's location. The state gave the data to the FCC, which encouraged other states to share information. North Carolina was one of the states that responded.

The FCC posted the data online.

The coalition said it found that 211,241 of the 447,918 wireless calls received in North Carolina 911 emergency centers in June 2013 lacked accurate location information.

Pinpoint information is critical, Barbour said.

Barbour said first responders are out the door as soon as they get a 911 call. But if they don't know the exact location, they're going to end up on the wrong street - meaning longer response times.

"We had people call back saying, 'We hear the sirens. Why aren't you here?'" he said.

The FCC has been looking into the issue, and held a daylong workshop on Nov. 18 with public safety officials, cellphone companies and others.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told those attending he was an advocate for finding a solution to the problem. "We have some serious work ahead of us," he said.

David Simpson, chief of the FCC's public safety and homeland security bureau, said Friday it's important that "911 operators get the best available information on the location of callers."

"The input we are receiving from all stakeholders will help us understand the value of greater accuracy standards and the role for 911 call centers, wireless carriers, and the FCC on this priority issue," he said.