Some cell phones give mixed signals in emergency situations
In emergencies, some calls provide exact location, others don't
Published 1:06 am, Friday, March 26, 2010
Imagine you're driving down the road, get into a serious accident and don't know where you are. Any delayed response from emergency personnel is critical time lost. While there are some cell phone carriers that allow a dispatcher to pinpoint an exact location, many will only "ping" on the nearest tower, which could be some blocks away.
As far as technology has come in recent years -- people who forgot to shut their garage door can now do so with their iPhone -- dispatchers at emergency communication centers often have to spend time on the phone with a caller asking what landmarks they see, what exit they passed on the highway or what the nearest side street might be. Dispatchers in the basement of the Fairfield Police Department use the answers they get to figure out someone's location in a prompt manner and send help. However, if someone calling 9-1-1 is unable to communicate or is in a remote area where there are no landmarks, dispatchers may have a more difficult time determining one's whereabouts.
Signals bouncing off nearby towers can give dispatchers a general sense of where someone is. One Fairfield dispatcher on Wednesday -- whose cell phone carrier doesn't track right to the phone -- dialed 9-1-1 as a test for the Fairfield Citizen. The call was made from police headquarters on Reef Road but the map on the computer-aided dispatch system showed the call hitting a tower on Sherman Street, about three blocks away.
More troubling is when someone makes a call from a boat on Long Island Sound, as there are no cell towers in the water to give a sense of one's general location. If a medical call were to come in from a person who was not able to provide specifics about his or her boat, marine police would have a hard time figuring out which boat the call came from, especially if there are multiple boats in the water.
The emergency communications center dispatchers ensured the Fairfield Citizen Wednesday that so far there have been no calls involving serious medical conditions in which the location could not be deciphered. There has always been some landmark the person could describe.
Joe Thomas, a 19-year dispatcher, said a co-worker once got a call from a hunter in a tree stand who was going into cardiac arrest. Fortunately, the man's cell phone carrier provided his exact location on the
computer-aided dispatch system and the dispatcher was able to guide rescuers to his location.
Without a phone providing his exact GPS coordinates, finding the man would have been like finding a needle in a haystack, Thomas said. If all phones provided exact GPS coordinates, he said, "It would make our job a lot easier."
As much as the dispatchers do to provide location information, "sometimes the officers have to do a little more work to locate the emergency," said a dispatcher Tuesday. The man added that different phasing is being worked on for cell phone technology, and future phasing will likely include making it so dispatchers can determine the exact location of any caller, no matter their cell phone provider.
"At some point every phone will have the 9-1-1 capacity for us to pinpoint it," he said. Dispatchers don't have a problem locating someone calling from a landline, because that landline corresponds to a fixed address. With a cell phone, sometimes the 9-1-1 call might even come from another town. People calling near Park Avenue in Fairfield, for instance, might find themselves in contact with a dispatcher in Bridgeport, according to Lt. Mike Gagner of the Fairfield Police Department.
Also, Fairfield dispatchers, during inclement weather, sometimes field calls from people as far away as Long Island, the result of something called a "skip."
Overall, however, the town's emergency response team feels the system works well, and dispatchers work hard to determine someone's location as quickly as possible. Gagner, who supervised the emergency communications center for eight years, said cell phone technology has improved dramatically over the last 10 years.
"While we're fielding a lot more phone calls, we're getting real-time data from people out on the street." If someone spots a drunk driver, for example, they can call police from their cell phone and replay every turn the person makes onto what street.
Police Chief David Peck said in the old days, nothing came up as far as identifying a cell phone call.
"Now it's a name and the GPS coordinates [of either the actual location or the closest tower]," he said.
Thomas said if a dispatcher asks the right questions of someone who is lost, determining a location can take a minute or less. However, he'd love if everyone's cell phone eliminated the need for such dialogue. Having worked as a dispatcher for nearly 20 years, he's not confident that will happen anytime soon.
Dispatchers at the Fairfield Police Department recommend, especially for senior citizens, purchasing cell phones whose carriers provide information on one's exact location.