Editorial: Mixed cell phone signals
Chatting last week with the members of Fairfield's Emergency Communications Center -- the ones who take your 9-1-1 calls -- revealed a startling fact. As many advances as cell phones have brought us, they also can present a problem for emergency response, and occasionally make it harder for 9-1-1 operators to do their jobs as quickly and efficiently as they would like.
A call from a landline has been easy to trace for years. Emergency responders can locate where the call is coming from in seconds, and can dispatch rescue teams to the area immediately. However, calls coming from a cell phone aren't always where they seem. Because signals bounce off nearby towers or even skip across the Long Island Sound, the directions that emergency responders are receiving can be deceptive. A call from one neighborhood can seem like it's coming from another neighborhood entirely.
Of course, some would point out that the person on the phone can just tell the 9-1-1 operators where they are located. How many people in emergency situations are fully able to communicate? Maybe someone is hiding from a perpetrator and cannot talk. Maybe a child is making the call. Maybe medical conditions prevent someone from being heard. Or maybe the cell reception is no good. There are so many situations in which the person calling can be unable to effectively communicate, leaving responders with some big decisions to make -- and they can't afford to make the wrong guess.
What happens, then, is that multiple rescue teams are sent out to the suspected locations to ensure that help gets to the caller as quickly as possible. That means more manpower is sometimes being used than is necessary, but what other choice do they have? None. Dispatchers and rescue crews deal with these situations very well, and luckily they have been able to track down each medical emergency call that has come in, but it isn't always an easy task.
We only wish something could be done to make their jobs a little easier. Actually, there is. According to the town's emergency response officials, technology to reduce or eliminate this problem for all cell phones does exist. Some cell phone companies have phones that come with global positioning system (GPS) technology. Unfortunately, not all phones or phone companies provide this.
Without naming names, emergency dispatchers told the Fairfield Citizen that in this area, only certain cell phone companies have the signal problems. Others, however, are remarkable accurate. (Anyone purchasing a cell phone should check with the provider to make sure that phone will provide accurate GPS information in this area.)
The estimated time all cell phone companies will get around to creating phones with uniform GPS technology is "some time in the future," so the town's emergency response teams do the best they can while they wait.
Unfortunately, problems like this are normally only fixed in response to a tragic situation -- one that could have been prevented if only we'd taken the time to address it. We hope that our legislators recognize the potential to stop a deadly situation before it occurs and put some real thought into enforcing cell phone GPS regulations to help emergency responders get accurate information as quickly as possible.