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Upgrade is praised for 911 cell phone uses

March 25, 2005|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - A plan for a $1.6 million upgrade of Franklin County's 911 system would allow dispatchers to know the location of an emergency call made by someone using a cellular phone.

The Franklin County Board of Commissioners Thursday approved an application for funding to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. Once implemented, the 911 center would have the capability to pinpoint the location of a cellular call using global positioning system technology or signal triangulation, according to Jerry Flasher, the county's director of emergency services.

"Right now, we're at phase zero," Flasher told the commissioners. "Our goal is to go right from zero to phase two."

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All 911 calls from cell phones are converted from a radio signal to a seven-digit telephone number that rings in at the 911 center, Flasher said.

"We may or may not get a name," he said of the information displayed on a dispatcher's screen.

With the wired telephones in most homes and businesses, a dispatch screen displays the address from where the call was made, as well as the person or business the line is assigned to and other pertinent information.

In September 2003, John A. Dice II of Chambersburg made three cell phone calls after a riding mower rolled over on top of him. Before he died, the 911 center picked up three calls from his cell phone, but he could not be understood and the location of the call could not be established, Franklin County Coroner Jeffrey Conner and Emergency Services Director Jerry Flasher said at the time of Dice's death.

Robert W. Anderson of L. Robert Kimball and Associates, the firm that drafted the county's wireless 911 plan, said there was another incident in which the daughter of New York State Assemblyman David Koon was kidnapped and murdered in 1993.

Koon testified before Congress in 2003 that his daughter, Jennifer, was able to call 911 with her car phone, but a dispatcher was unable to tell from where the call was made, according to Koon's Web site.

The Federal Communications Commission has directed wireless phone companies, manufacturers and public safety communications systems to install the computers and software to allow emergency cell phone calls to be traced.

Phase one would trace a call to the nearest cell phone tower, but Flasher said that would only narrow the area to a five-mile radius.

Phase two, he said, allows calls to be pinpointed by one of two methods - triangulating the signal between towers to come up with the longitude and latitude, or with GPS technology, which is more precise. With phase two enhancements, Flasher said dispatchers will have a map of a caller's location on their screens.

The 911 center is funded, in part, by a $1.24 monthly surcharge on each land line telephone in the county, but the number of lines has been declining as people rely more on wireless technology, Flasher said.

"We've been running at a deficit for a couple of years," Commissioner G. Warren Elliott said of the center.

The money to enhance, operate and maintain a wireless 911 system comes from a $1 per month surcharge on cell phones collected by the state, Anderson said. The formula for wireless 911 is based in part on the percentage of cell calls a 911 center receives, Flasher said.

Of the 780,000 calls the 911 center received last year, Flasher said 36,059 were for life-threatening emergencies and 15,759 were made from cell phones.

The state will approve or ask for changes in the county plan by June 1, Anderson said. The system will be put in place as soon as funds are available, said Flasher.

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