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Call for help

By Dan Heuchert

Late 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.

She regains consciousness and finds her cell phone. For the next 36 hours, she makes frantic 911 calls, but she can’t offer dispatchers any information about her location. Finally, her cell phone battery dies. Days later, frustrated rescuers find her body.

Another 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.

More 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 can’t 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.

Perina 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.

It’s not that companies are reluctant to install a new technology that will save lives. “That’s like being against mom and apple pie,” Perina said.

There are other issues, though, that must be sorted out with a technology that allows the location of cell-phone users to be known instantly.

Civil 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 (“McDonald’s — next exit!”).

Concern 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.

“It 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 (she’s its medical director) and Dilbert cartoons.

Studies 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.

There 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.

hase II requires carriers to provide more accurate location information — within 50 to 100 meters in most cases.

The 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, Perina said.

How 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.

Perina counters that the main obstacle is financial. Equipping the nation’s more than 6,000 emergency dispatch centers to receive wireless location information will likely require federal funds, probably in the form of matching grants.

More 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.”

Looming behind the E-911 debate are potential non-emergency uses for wireless location information.

Congress’ 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.

The 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.

He 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.

Chris Hoofnagle, deputy counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said cellular providers are wary of being seen as aiding the government in tracking customers.

Hoofnagle’s 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.

Though 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.

For 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. It’s time well-spent,” she said. “There’s a huge push for this to happen.”


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