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Sue Bush
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Wireless Emergency 9-1-1 Gets Boost In Williamstown

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Thursday, November 09, 2006

Williamstown - Challenges associated with cellular telephone emergency calls are being tackled by technology and the town's police department.

A new enhanced emergency communications system installed at the town police department will assist officers responses to cell phone emergency calls and is a welcome addition to department resources, said police Chief Kyle Johnson during a Nov. 8 interview.

Up And Running

The system was provided to the department at no charge by the state Statewide Emergency Telecommunications Board. System installation technicians have been wiring the system components at the North Street police headquarters for about two weeks, and installation is complete, Johnson said.

"We are fully functional now," he said.

The town department is the first Berkshire region municipal police agency to acquire the system, Johnson said.

"We are very happy to have this system," he said. "It will definitely be of great value to us."

Police departments in other Berkshire communities are expected to acquire the technology in the near future.

Technology Has Proven It's Worth

The installation means coming into compliance with a Federal Communications Commission wireless emergency communications order issued in 1996. The order's Phase 1 was completed in-state during April 2003 and required all cellular service carriers to ensure that the telephone number of a cell phone caller show up at a emergency call answering center.

The order's first phase also mandated that call takers be able to ascertain which cell tower carried the signal, and which side of the tower was "hit" by a wireless signal. The information was used as a way to determine an approximate caller location.

That technology allowed town police officers to narrow a search area earlier this year, when hikers called police to report that they were not certain of their location and were concerned about oncoming nightfall. The hikers were located in part because officers knew approximately where the call had been made.

Phase II of the order requires wireless carriers to provide additional information about call location, including latitude and longitude that is accurate to within 50-300 meters. A mapping system allows officers another advantage when trying to pinpoint a wireless call location, Johnson said.

Phones that do not have Phase II capabilities will not activate the new location improvements, Johnson said.

Good, But Not Foolproof

Currently, three "public safety answering points" receive emergency wireless calls made within the state. The PSAPs are state police barracks in Framingham, Northampton, and Middleboro. Call takers at those locations relay information to appropriate municipal agencies.

The new system will offer much help but is not a foolproof system, Johnson said.

Most cell phones currently in use are compliant with Phase I requirements but may not be equipped with Phase II capabilities. Pre-paid phone services do not have Phase I or Phase II capabilities, meaning that call takers do not receive the phone number of emergency calls from those phones.

"That has been a problem if the caller hangs up or the call is disconnected," Johnson said.

Wireless callers reporting emergencies from vehicles should stop and remain stopped after the call, Johnson said. Callers have been difficult to locate because they continued to drive after placing a call or drove out of the phone's range and were unreachable when emergency servcies operators attempted to call them back.

In the summertime case of the hikers, the group stayed at the location they called from, which made it easier for police to locate them, he said.

Seek Phase II Capable Phones

Cell phone manufacturers have until Jan. 2008 to produce phones that are Phase II capable and compliant, Johnson said. Some phones are available with the Phase II capabilities and Johnson said anyone considering purchase of a new cellular phone should inquire about Phase II capability.

A growing number of emergency phone calls are coming from cell phones, Johnson said.

"Last year was the first year that more phone calls came in through cell phones than through landlines," he said.

In 2005, 1.8 million wireless emergency 9-1-1 calls were made in the state, compared with 1.5 million emergency 9-1-1 calls from conventional "landline" telephones.

The FCC and SETB has issued tips for cellular telephone emergency calls that should be followed even if a phone is Phase I or Phase II capable.

* Give an emergency call taker the cell phone number right away so that the operator can contact you if the call is disconnected. Do not assume that the phone number is available to the operator.

* Remember that if your cell phone is pre-paid or not involved in a service contract with a service carrier, information about your location will NOT appear to emergency call takers. Give as much as information as you can when the call taker answers the call.

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush@iberkshires.com or at 802-823-9367.
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