February 24, 2003 12:24 PM PST

Lawmakers dialing in E911 pressure

The cell phone industry and public safety agencies will come under new pressure from U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday to speed up deployment of equipment that lets rescue workers locate cell phones that have been used to dial 911.

The lawmakers, including Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., are part of the E911 (enhanced 911) Caucus, a committee of senators and congressional representatives created near the end of the legislative session last year to prod the wireless industry into action and make sure emergency call centers get the funding needed to meet the Federal Communications Commission's E911 mandate. The group's kickoff press conference is set for Tuesday.

Clinton and Burns, along with the group's two other members, Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and John Shimkus, R-Ill., won't announce any new legislation. Instead, they'll highlight a list of goals for the caucus and draw attention to the group's first hearings, scheduled for March 5, according to a Burns representative. The group will stress, however, that it is looking at "legislative alternatives" to get the industry to deploy E911 equipment as soon as possible, the representative said.

All five of the nation's largest wireless carriers have until 2005 to make it possible for police answering a 911 call to locate, within 50 feet, the cell phone used to make the call. The nation's telephone companies already supply street addresses to police every time someone dials 911 from a home or office phone.

Wireless carriers are finding the task difficult. All have missed the first of a series of deadlines to begin adding the capabilities to large portions of their network. Only two carriers now offer any kind of E911 service, and only in relatively small areas. AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless are perhaps the furthest behind, having decided in late 2001 to start over with new technology.

But the task has also created headaches for public safety agencies trying to find the extra millions needed to buy the necessary gear for their call centers, the clearinghouses for 911 calls, according to a representative for the Public Safety Foundation. The foundation this year will dispense $12 million in grants to police agencies. The first round of grants, $2.4 million to 29 different police agencies, were distributed last week.

Big city police departments, such as those in Los Angeles, New York or Philadelphia, have to find "tens of millions of dollars" during an economic downturn that's left tax coffers empty, the foundation's representative said. Rural areas don't have to spend nearly as much, but they also don't generate as much tax revenue, the representative added.

Clinton was a late addition to the caucus. The senator has been under fire in New York since Jan. 24, when four teenagers in a sinking boat used a cell phone to dial 911. The teenagers have yet to be found and are presumed dead. A wireless carrier in the area said had police been using E911 gear, the chances of a rescue would probably have been higher.

 

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