Call for help
By Dan Heuchert
one night, a young mother driving out West falls asleep at the
wheel. Her car veers off the road, plunges down an embankment
and comes to rest out of sight of the road. She is trapped inside.
regains consciousness and finds her cell phone. For the next 36
hours, she makes frantic 911 calls, but she cant offer dispatchers
any information about her location. Finally, her cell phone battery
dies. Days later, frustrated rescuers find her body.
woman is in her home when she hears someone breaking in. She retreats
to a bathroom and dials 911 on her cell phone. But before she
can tell dispatchers where she is, the phone line goes dead, and
the woman is assaulted.
than 1,000 people each day call 911 from their cell phones, and
at least once a day there is a negative outcome because
the caller cant be found, said Dr. Debra Perina, associate
professor of emergency medicine and a member of the board of directors
of the National Association of EMS Physicians.
is the only physician on a federal task force charged with speeding
implementation of new technology that will allow 911 dispatchers
to pinpoint the location of wireless callers. Congress passed
a law in 1999 that mandated that wireless enhanced 911
be in place by Dec. 31, 2005, but cellular service providers have
been dragging their feet, she said.
not that companies are reluctant to install a new technology that
will save lives. Thats like being against mom and
apple pie, Perina said.
are other issues, though, that must be sorted out with a technology
that allows the location of cell-phone users to be known instantly.
libertarians question whether it might represent another step
toward a Big Brother society, but parents may welcome
a tool to track their wandering teens. Travelers could dial up
directions to the nearest gas, food or lodging. Marketing experts
envision a new world of location-based advertising (McDonalds
about delays in implementing wireless E-911 led the National Highway
Transportation Safety Administration to appoint the 22-member
panel that includes Perina last spring. The group which
also includes representatives of the cellular industry, public
safety agencies, state and local officials and highway experts
is attempting to identify and overcome barriers to making
the technology a reality.
may seem like somewhat of a leap for a physician to be involved
in these activities, but in fact it is not for a physician in
the EMS field, Perina said recently as she sat in her office,
its walls decorated with photos of the Pegasus rescue helicopter
(shes its medical director) and Dilbert cartoons.
show that 46 percent of cell-phone users bought the phones for
safety reasons, Perina said. According to industry statistics,
U.S. wireless users averaged nearly 156,000 calls for emergency
services each day in 2001 or about 108 per minute
which Perina said represents about 30 percent of all emergency
calls. Within five years, the majority of emergency calls are
likely to come from cell phones, she said.
are two phases to wireless E-911 implementation. Phase I, which
required wireless providers to give 911 dispatchers the phone
number of a caller and the location of the cellular tower through
which the call originated, is largely complete.
II requires carriers to provide more accurate location information
within 50 to 100 meters in most cases.
most likely method of accomplishing this is to include Global
Positioning System transmitters in each phone, as is already done
in some vehicles. Some new phones are already receiving this technology,
caller location information will be monitored and transmitted
to dispatchers is less clear. Travis Larson, a spokesman for the
Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, said there
are still significant technological hurdles to overcome, and his
organization has lamented the lack of coordination between various
stakeholders in the effort.
counters that the main obstacle is financial. Equipping the nations
more than 6,000 emergency dispatch centers to receive wireless
location information will likely require federal funds, probably
in the form of matching grants.
vexing is the potential cost of adding GPS transmitters to the
235 million cell phones already in use. Perina said she believes
that the Federal Communications Commission will ultimately require
it, but Larson said, There will be no retrofitted phones.
behind the E-911 debate are potential non-emergency uses for wireless
1999 law requires that consumers give their consent before location
information can be used for nonemergency purposes. But civil libertarians
raise the specter of the government requiring carriers to archive
such information and make it available upon request, or by subpoena.
potential of cell-phone tracking is right smack in the middle
of the most significant technological issues we have, said
Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the
American Civil Liberties Union.
suggests users be given the option of blocking their location
information, just as users of regular phones can block their numbers
from appearing on caller ID devices.
Hoofnagle, deputy counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information
Center, said cellular providers are wary of being seen as aiding
the government in tracking customers.
other fear is pervasive marketing. He foresees a future
in which advertisers will track cell phone users and bombard their
cell phones with ads for nearby businesses.
Congress opt-in requirement provides some protection,
cellular carriers may offer consumers useful location-based services
like teen-tracking and instant travel directions
as incentives to waive their privacy rights.
her part, Perina is focused on cutting through the red tape, getting
wireless E-911 implemented on time and saving lives. Anything
I can personally do to bring this about will be very rewarding.
Its time well-spent, she said. Theres
a huge push for this to happen.