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FCC seeks more accuracy in tracing 911 cellphone calls

Kevin J. Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, appears before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Thursday, Feb., 1, 2007. Martin faces scrutiny today over his efforts to relax media ownership limits and make it easier for phone companies to sell television service. Photographer: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg News Kevin J. Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, appears before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Thursday, Feb., 1, 2007. Martin faces scrutiny today over his efforts to relax media ownership limits and make it easier for phone companies to sell television service. Photographer: Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg News (Bloomberg )

WASHINGTON -- People make more 911 calls from cellular telephones than landlines these days, and police and firefighters increasingly worry about finding those callers in distress.

Contrary to what is portrayed on TV crime shows, the accuracy of the technology that guides rescuers to callers can range from a few yards to a few miles, even though federal law requires providers to guarantee that they can be located in emergencies.

Aiming to improve accuracy, Kevin J. Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said this week that he will propose significant changes in the 911 system.

"This is something we always want to be improving on," Martin said. "We have to make sure public safety doesn't lose because we don't take advantage of the changes in technology."

Martin said he will support a request by an association of emergency responders to tighten requirements on how accuracy is measured. He also said he will open a new inquiry at the agency that may lead to significant changes in how cellphone companies manufacture handsets.

When a 911 call comes in to an emergency communications center from a cellphone, unlike a landline telephone, the operator often has only a vague idea of where the call is coming from.

Callers who are lost or incapacitated and cannot speak may wait for hours while rescue workers try to track their location.

The issue has become more critical as the number of 911 calls from cellphones exceeds those coming from landlines, according to public safety specialists. The trend is expected to continue as more people opt to drop landlines altogether.

CTIA , the nation's top wireless industry lobbying group, reports that 230,000 911 cellphone calls are made each day. The group also estimates that 8.4 percent of households are "wireless only."

There is no doubt that cellphones allow people to call for help from more isolated places, but public safety advocates and the wireless industry want people to understand the limits.

"People have to recognize it's not the wireline 911 system and never will be, because you can only bend the laws of physics so much," said Joe Farren, CTIA spokesman.

Martin's effort is being made in advance of a new study from the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials that will highlight the limitations of "enhanced " 911 systems.

"It's a misconception to think that when you dial 911 on a cellular phone that the person on the other end is going to know where you are," said Bob Smith, director of emergency communications. Smith said he worries about television dramas in which police are able to locate a person in distress down to within a few feet.

"The fact is, that can't always happen in real life," he said. "The technology doesn't exist in most places to allow that to happen."

The location challenges stem from inherent limitations in how cellphones work and a decision the FCC made several years ago to allow manufacturers to use two different location technologies.

Network technology uses cellphone towers to zero in on a caller through a process known as triangulation. But for this to work, three towers need to be near the caller -- unlikely in rural areas.

The second method uses satellite technology embedded in the phone. Rescuers use a geographical information system that guides them to the caller, often with great accuracy. While those phones are desirable in rural areas, they may be ill-suited in the urban canyons common to cities.

Federal law and FCC rules require that providers using the network method should be accurate to within about 328 yards, for 95 percent of calls and within roughly 109 yards for 67 percent of calls.

For the satellite method, responders must be guided to within about 164 yards for 95 percent of calls and some 55 yards for 67 percent.

The FCC does not do any independent testing to ensure compliance, but rather acts on complaints. For assurances on accuracy, they rely on the companies themselves.

The flaw in the system is that carriers are permitted to use a large area, such as an entire state, to calculate their accuracy rate.

"It doesn't do any good for people in Buffalo and Albany if things are going well in New York City," Martin said.

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