PARIS — When a telephone call for help rings in to Maine’s 26 emergency dispatch centers, it is increasingly being made by someone on the move using a mobile phone. When the caller doesn’t know where they are, dispatchers rely on GPS coordinates pinging off nearby cell towers to locate the emergency. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s improving.

The destruction of a Dixfield home by fire on July 4 highlights some of the problems emergency responders can face when they get a call for help from a mobile phone, whether to defer to the caller’s knowledge of the area, or rely on electronic global positioning data emanating from the phone.

In the Dixfield instance, the first caller reporting the fire was unsure of the location and the cell call connected and transferred to emergency operators in three different communications centers based on incorrect GPS data, delaying emergency response by at least 20 minutes (see related story).

While operators were trying to figure out the street address, the homeowner called 911 with that address and, according to a 911 transcript provided to the Sun Journal by the Maine Department of Public Safety, asks: “Where are you? Where are you?”

E-911 oversight

The communication bureau, along with the Enhanced 911 Advisory Council, which comprises public safety and communications officials, oversees Maine’s Enhanced 911 system.

Just under half of the calls made to the state’s 911 system in 2008
came via cell phones, according to the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which includes the
state’s Bureau of Emergency Communications. 

“Since we put the system in in about 2001, (cell phones) were about 30 percent
of all calls, so it’s increased that much in eight years,” said Maria Jacques, director of Maine’s Emergency Services Communication Bureau.

The state’s protocol is to defer to the caller’s verbal report on the location, and that while all five of Maine’s cell phone providers can deliver location data via GPS or signal triangulation, that data is only used if there is a conflict on the reported location or a caller cannot say or does not know where they are, Jacques said.

In the case of the Dixfield response, “The problem was we always defer to the caller,” Jacques said. “There is not an absolute certainty with cell phones, that that’s where it is. If the caller insists they are somewhere else, that’s what they (operators) follow.” 

But at least one reference in the transcript (available at sunjournal.com/911) shows an operator telling the first caller that the operator is “seeing” through GPS tracking that the caller is in Weld (actually Wells according to the call transcript, but officials believe that may be a typographical error on the part of the transcriptionist), about 9 miles from the scene of the fire.

Later in the transcript, the caller is asking to double-check the location and another operator reconfirms the location as being in Carthage, despite the caller’s physical location in Dixfield, based on information that was passed on from a previous operator. The exchange between callers and operators is confusing, but what’s clear is that the first caller was trying to figure out an address and did not insist that it was in one town or another.

According to Franklin County dispatch supervisor Melinda Caton, the first caller said the location was in Carthage near the Carthage-Weld town line, but no GPS information appeared on the dispatcher’s screen during that call.

The fire was actually in the opposite direction, 1½ miles into Dixfield from the Carthage-Dixfield town line.

Information operators received from the second, nearly simultaneous cell phone caller, who also reported being near the Carthage-Weld line, only indicated the nearest cell tower to the caller was in Peru, Caton explained.

Based on those calls, Caton said the dispatchers believed the fire was in Franklin County, so they first notified Carthage and Weld fire departments.

At 10:46 p.m., Caton said a third cell phone caller contacted the Franklin County dispatcher, and told them that she knew her location, had (homeowner) Bourgeois with her, and that the fire was in Dixfield.

Caton said the Franklin County dispatcher then alerted Oxford County dispatchers, who, in turn, quickly alerted Dixfield Fire Co. and mutual-aid departments to the fire.

A fourth 911 call came in reporting the fire, but the caller didn’t know their location, Caton added.

Hard-wired phones

Had the call for help come from a hard-wired phone, the physical location of that caller would have been known concretely and immediately based on existing E-911 landline identification systems and the first fire department notified to the fire would have been the closest one — in Dixfield.

“You are losing the benefit of  a system that has a physical address attached to the phone number and there are certain inherent strengths that are associated with the accuracy of that information as opposed to a wireless phone, which is just an estimated location, it’s not a
physical address,” said Patrick Halley, government affairs director for the National Emergency Number Association, a D.C.-based lobbying organizations that works to improve the 9-1-1 system in North America.

“With a cell phone what you are getting is just an estimated location, the phone is not tied to a physical location but becomes a plot on a map,” he said.

The accuracy of that plot can vary depending on the technology available to the dispatch center, the phone model and make of the caller’s phone, the number of cell phone towers in an area and how well any given operator interprets the data.

“It is less precise,” Jacques said. “If you think you can replace that exact location you get with a landline phone, you are mistaken. You can’t. There is
nothing as accurate as that as long as your address is accurate in the database.”

Local officials agreed, but also said that situations with caller confusion or data-flow problems are relatively few and far between in Maine.

“For the most part, it works, and we learn from the times it doesn’t,” said Jim Miclon, director of the Oxford County Regional Communications Center in Paris. “It’s like anything, it’s not perfect.”

Cell phone service

And while the state’s emergency communications system is being rapidly
modified to better service mobile callers, the system still doesn’t
work as well as it does with  hard-wired phones, state and local
emergency communications officials have said. All five of Maine’s cell
phone providers are officially compliant with Federal Communication
Commission standards that require a mobile phone calling 911 to be
located via global positioning system information to within 50 to 300 meters (164 feet to 984 feet) of the phone. 

Some companies do this with a GPS chip in their phones, others use the phone’s signal and network towers in a process known as triangulation.

This FCC requirement is called Phase II and, as of fall 2005,  Maine complied with it, according Jacques.

Miclon said that more than 85 percent of the 911 calls made via cell phones work the way they should.

“For the most part, as soon as we hear of a problem, we’re right on it because we don’t want anybody to have a false sense of security,” Miclon said.

The Enhanced 911 system was designed to immediately identify a 911 caller’s physical address and telephone number, allowing dispatchers to quickly send emergency responders to the scene, minimizing delays that can endanger lives or property. But the system was built around the premise most calls would come via a landline phone.

Most of the cell towers in Oxford County, including the one involved in the July fire, will soon be directly routed to the Paris dispatch center. The same change is taking place with Verizon cell towers in the Lewiston-Auburn area. Calls off those towers and U.S. Celluar towers will go directly to the Lewiston-Auburn 911 Communications Center in Auburn, according to Tony Delano, the system manager in Auburn.

Both Miclon and Delano said that despite a rare flaw or problem, the system as it works now is vastly improved and improving all the time, saving more lives than the previous system.

“Are you going to get 100 percent?” Delano asks. “Do you ever get 100 percent of anything?”

Delano said of the 143,965 calls to the Lewiston-Auburn 911 center in the last year, 11,218 of them came via cell phone.

“Cell phones are a problem,” Miclon said. “We can plot them within that
meter frame and, most of the time, it isn’t a real big problem, but
people should still pay attention to where they are.”

He said that when a 911 call comes in by cell phone, what happens next depends on the cell carrier.

Some calls go directly to the appropriate dispatching center; others
go to PSAPs, where dispatchers have only about 10 seconds to
start routing the call to the appropriate agency.

If they don’t have enough information, like exact GPS coordinates, dispatchers go with what they have, Jacques said.

In the Dixfield case, “the callers were emphatic they were in Carthage,” Miclon said.

“Actually, the first call said they were in Weld, so it started in
Weld and ended up a couple of calls in Carthage and then, after 15 or
16 minutes, we ended up with it,” he said.

“These phones are a pain,” Miclon said. “I mean I’ve talked with the
staff since this happened, and for the most part, they plot and we get
the latitude and longitude. This particular one, hopefully, was one of
a kind.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t know and we’ll never know if 15 to 20
minutes would have saved that place,” he said. “Thank God there wasn’t
somebody there and thank God, nobody was injured.”

Equipment testing

To ensure accuracy on cell calls Jacques said the bureau does extensive testing, which requires cell phone companies to pass tests using an uninitialized phone. If they can’t, they must tweak communications towers until they can prove a phone can be found within standards.

Jacques declined a request to provide the Sun Journal with copies of testing records.

“911 calls are confidential and, also, the cell tower information is confidential,” Jacques said. “It’s a competitive market out there for the cell carriers.”

She did say that every cell tower in Maine is at Phase II compliance, including the one involved in the Dixfield response.

Another problem officials are seeing is that older cell phones still in use today were only designed to comply with the FCC’s Phase I requirements.

Phase I ensured that wireless phone companies only give the PSAP the address of the cell tower that processes a 911 call, and the call-back number of the the cell phone.

“I have relatives that have the original cell phone they got eight years ago, and they are different,” Miclon said.

When a Phase I wireless phone is used to call 911, Miclon said his dispatchers only get the nearest tower location.

“It doesn’t necessarily give us their location, which doesn’t always help, like the incident in Dixfield,” he said.

What’s next?

And with more American households dropping landlines to become cell-only or Voice Over Internet Protocol households, organizations like Halley’s NENA is pushing for what’s being billed as NextGeneration 9-1-1.

This new system would allow those seeking help to do so via text message, and also allow those with video or camera phones to share that kind of visual data with emergency responders, Halley said.

Maine’s E-911 system was orginally funded in 1988 by Maine voters who OK’d a $3.2 million bond. Since then, funding used to implement and manage the system comes from 911 surcharge fees assessed on landlines and cell phones, Jacques said.

This year, lawmakers increased the monthly surcharge from 30
cents to 37 cents, overturning the 2006 reduction from 50 cents to 30 cents. The PUC and the bureau are now considering increasing the fee
again to 47 cents by 2010 to make up projected shortfalls for
operating the
existing system. 

But Maine, according to a recently released FCC report to
Congress, was one of 12 states that used 911 funds raised from these surcharges for purposes other than improving or expanding its emergency phone service. Last year, lawmakers diverted $2.6 million of $6.6 million in the state’s 911 fund to the general fund to help close the budget shortfall.

Halley said those kinds of raids can hinder the ability for the system to expand and add technology. “It’s shortsighted especially when you have dedicated funds that are being
collected for a specific purpose going someplace else,” Halley said.

While the amount of the raid isn’t that much in the great scheme of things, it’s the principal and also the idea of eroding the capacity or capability of a system that is there to protect and save lives, he said.

[email protected]

Staff writer Donna Perry contributed to this story.


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