For cellphone callers dialing 911, it’s location, location, location

Posted Sept. 06, 2011, at 9:16 a.m.
Last modified Sept. 06, 2011, at 5:18 p.m.

The next time an emergency arises and you need to call 911 from your cellphone, chances are emergency personnel will locate you and respond.

But they may need your help doing so.

“When someone calls and says they are on a dirt road with a lot of trees, that’s not very helpful in a place like New Hampshire,” David Rivers, chief of operations for the statewide 911 call center, said. “We wouldn’t even know what community to contact to send services. The most important piece of information we can get from a caller is their location.”

National statistics show that almost a quarter of all American households have dropped land-line phones in favor of wireless, but emergency officials caution that such a move, often made to cut household expenses, could come at the price of personal safety.

“Because the caller is not wired to a location, the 911 call does not present with a street address,” said Wanda Bowers, public information representative for the state’s Bureau of Emergency Communications and statewide 911 call center. “Instead, latitude and longitude data is provided by the cell carriers via satellites and towers. This technology isn’t perfectly accurate or consistent throughout the state.”

Land-line calls “appear on the 911 dispatcher’s computer screen with a telephone number, street address and police, fire and EMS dispatch centers assigned to that telephone number,” Bowers said. “It happens instantly.”

Perry Plummer, head of the New Hampshire Fire Standards and Training and Emergency Medical Services Division, notes that “there aren’t GPS units in the ambulances to put coordinates into.”

“Sometimes they aren’t able to get a good location on a caller,” he said. “It doesn’t happen often, but it has happened in the past. In those cases, we send as much apparatus as we have available to the area to begin searching.”

A rescue situation using coordinates from a caller occurred Aug. 3 when a four-person rescue team found a 20-year-old Candia, N.H., man who became lost hiking in the 5,600-acre Pawtuckaway State Park. Two state conservation officers and two firefighters found Connor Vesey about two hours after his 7:30 p.m. call, using his GPS coordinates.

New Hampshire’s 911 system has been locating cellphones since the late 1990s. At the outset, 911 dispatchers only received data from the cell tower closest to the caller.

“Cellular technology has improved and is continually improving,” said Bowers. “All new cellphones sold in the U.S. today are capable of sending location data, latitude and longitude.”

Rivers said more and more calls are coming in from cellphones.

“This past June, 78 percent of the calls that came in to the center came from cellphones,” said Rivers. “Last year at that time, it was 56 percent.”

In areas where cellphone reception can be considered spotty at best, calls to 911 can be bounced off several towers on their way to a dispatch center — occasionally one that’s out of state, Plummer said.

“Sometimes our 911 calls would be answered in Maine, especially ones from the south end of Dover, where the cell coverage was bad,” he said.

According to Bowers, when the state activated its 911 system in July 1995, New Hampshire had fewer than 50,000 cellphone subscribers and Voice over Internet Provider technology was being offered for the first time. Sixteen years later, Bowers said wireless phones in New Hampshire outnumber wired phones nearly 2-to-1. Bowers said recent statistics show nearly 850,000 wireless phones in use in the state, compared with 450,000 land-line phones, with another 150,000 residents using VoIP technology for their telephone service.

“With these VoIP providers, if you move or use the service when you travel, it can be a problem,” said Shane Young, a 911 operator in the call center. “If you have a VoIP in New Hampshire and you move out of state, or call from another state, it will give your location as New Hampshire.”

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