September 12, 2001 2:25 PM PDT

Could E911 have helped in disaster?

Tuesday's terrorist attacks in the United States and a new federal report are generating fresh debate about a system used to pinpoint a cell phone user's location that wireless carriers are supposed to begin using Oct. 1.

The system, called Enhanced 911, or E911, was proposed in 1996. In 1998, carriers were supposed to have the first phase in place, which would help police learn a cell phone caller's phone number and the nearest cell site. That was for an area anywhere within 1 to 5 miles. But the next phase would locate a cell phone caller within 100 yards.

The tragedy at the World Trade Center in New York is supplying anecdotal evidence of the need for the system. Many survivors, some buried in the rubble, have used cell phones to call for help. According to television news reports, one survivor--a man trapped in the rubble where previously a courtyard existed between the twin World Trade Center towers--was rescued after he was able to call for help using his mobile phone.

The victim, TV reports indicated, knew his approximate location, enabling rescuers to find and remove him. But in many accidents and disasters, victims calling for help may not know their precise location.

Also this week, the National Emergency Number Association released a report claiming that nearly half of all 911 calls made in metropolitan areas are from cell phones, yet there isn't a police station in the nation that has the technology needed to pinpoint the caller's location.

It's apparent the Oct. 1 deadline will pass with nine of the nation's major wireless telecommunications carriers, including Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless, expected to ask the Federal Communications Commission for a delay. In addition, just 10 percent of the police stations in the nation are ready to implement the first phase of the system, according to various sources.

In times of rescue, any advantage is key, even if it means just being able to know in what 100-yard area to begin looking, say some search and rescue personnel. The rubble from the World Trade Center is about two stories high and covers several city blocks.

"Anything that can enhance the ability of communication, which can enhance the ability of rescue, yes, it's (welcome)," said Ron Carter, deputy chief of the Oakland, Calif., Fire Department and member of a search and rescue team on stand-by to help find victims at the World Trade Center. "But I'm not saying it should or should not be in place. You can have all the technical advantages of communication and location, but if your batteries run dead, it's a nonissue."

But some, including Travis Larsen, a spokesman for the Cellular Telephone and Internet Association, and Herschel Shosteck of wireless industry group The Shosteck Group, say an E911 system would make little difference in locating buried survivors.

"Sadly, with this experience, you would need location technology capable of being able to pinpoint within 1 yard," Larsen said.

Shosteck added that E911 "probably wouldn't have had much impact, because it couldn't locate people that precisely. Sniffer dogs would locate people more quickly."

Analysts say that location-pinpointing technologies would likely be rendered useless in a disaster zone like the Tuesday catastrophe.

"The (radio frequency) would be blocked. It's possible that some calls would get out. But even if there were people alive, the signal would be distorted," Shosteck said. "The signal would get distorted in a shaft or under rubble."

In fact, wireless has been a quasi-hero in the disaster, letting people reach loved ones after wading through the delays caused by a doubling of the usual number of calls at peak time on the Verizon network, and the destruction of dozens of radio antennas located in and around the World Trade Center, Shosteck said.

The large use of 911 by cell phones is contained in the first-ever report card on the nation's 911 services, which was to be unveiled Tuesday during a congressional hearing. The report was released but not presented to Congress, given Tuesday's events. The report gave classroom grades for several areas of the nation's 911 service. It gave overall quality an A-minus. Service for wireless 911 callers got an I, for incomplete.

The report notes that less than half of all police stations have the first phase of the E911 service in place. The service would let them get the telephone number of the cell phone caller and what base station they were calling from; base stations can sometimes be miles away from where the caller is located.

None have the second phase in place, which would pinpoint the caller's location to within 100 yards, the report says.

"We're less than 21 days from an FCC order that (cell phone callers) should be starting to get service from their police stations, but show me the system that will be ready," said John Milcher, incoming president of the National Emergency Numbers Association, which played a role in authoring the report.

Thomas Wheeler, CTIA president, said carriers are working as hard as they can to put in the gear needed. So the I doesn't stand for "incomplete"; instead, he says, it should really stand for "implementation."

News.com's Corey Grice contributed to this report.

 

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