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THE CUTTING EDGE | Telecom Talk

Hearings Begin on Integration of 911 Systems

April 13, 1998|JENNIFER OLDHAM

As part of an effort to provide relief for the state's overburdened wireless 911 system, lawmakers will hold a hearing today on a bill that would allow officials to take the first step toward integrating the wireless and land-line 911 systems.

Assemblywoman Helen Thomson's (D-Davis) bill would amend a 1991 statute requiring all 911 calls made from cell phones to be routed through the California Highway Patrol.

The statute doesn't take into account cell phone users who call 911 from the mountains or a golf course--areas that fall outside the CHP's jurisdiction, said Craig Reynolds, Thomson's chief of staff.

"The problem is in the statute. All 911 cellular calls must go to the CHP, there's no choice in the matter," Reynolds said. "It was written some time ago when everyone had their cell phones connected to the lighter in their cars."

The CHP transfers as many as 30% of wireless 911 calls to municipalities that could better handle the emergency, causing rescue workers to lose precious response time.

"What we're trying to do is integrate the systems," said Steve Carlson, executive director of the Cellular Carriers Assn. of California, which supports the measure. "If this bill passes, whether you make a call from a phone booth downtown or from your cell phone next to the booth, the call will go to the same place."

In 1997, the state's wireless 911 system logged 2.7 million calls, up an eye-popping 7,405% from 29,000 in 1985. And the system is expected to become even more crowded as more digital subscribers come on line.

The high volume of calls has jammed CHP lines, preventing calls from highway call boxes from being connected and resulting in busy signals, officials said.

Thomson's bill incorporates a number of recommendations made in a report to Gov. Pete Wilson by a wireless 911 task force, which included representatives from numerous state agencies and the Cellular Carriers Assn. The task force was formed in 1996 to devise a means to ease the strain on the state's wireless 911 network.

Whether or not the bill is approved, the Cellular Carriers Assn. plans to test changes to the wireless 911 system this summer in the San Gabriel Valley. The test includes technology that would provide 911 operators with a callback number for a cell phone and its approximate location. Emergency operators currently see a blank screen when a call comes in from a cellular phone.

A two-part Federal Communications Commission order that went into effect April 1 mandates cellular carriers to send a cell phone's phone number to emergency operators. The second phase requires that within five years carriers must be able to pinpoint a 911 caller's location 67% of the time to within 125 yards.

State officials expect these mandates would work with Thomson's bill, if enacted, to decrease the strain on the system, Carlson said.

If Thomson's bill is approved, the CHP, local municipalities and cell carriers would need to study maps to determine which coverage areas fall within city jurisdictions and which ones fall within the CHP's jurisdiction. They then would need to change the software in cellular towers to route calls accordingly.

Municipalities and the CHP may also have to upgrade their emergency systems to be able to handle the callback and location-finder technology.

The state's emergency 911 fund, which comes from taxes paid by consumers on both land-line and wireless calls, would pay for the changeover. But officials at the state's Department of General Services, which administers the fund, say they might have to find additional sources of money.

Carlson said that cellular carriers could have tower location changes and callback number capabilities in major cities ready within a year if Thomson's bill is approved. The caller location-tracking technology would take three years, he said.

Thomson's bill includes a provision to give cellular carriers limited liability protections extended to land-line companies. The Consumer Attorneys of California, formerly known as the California Trial Lawyers Assn., opposes this part of the bill, arguing that the bill's real intent is not to amend the 1991 statute, but to provide legal protection for wireless carriers.

"If they are interested in [the rerouting plan], they can do it without immunity," said Rick Simons, president of the Consumer Attorneys of California. "That's kind of a cover for what they're really interested in, which is immunity for when they commit unlawful conduct."

Carlson said at least 10 states have implemented legislation similar to Thomson's bill, granting immunity to wireless carriers against unforeseen problems with the wireless 911 network.

"We think it's a reasonable request. It puts us on par with others in the emergency service network like paramedics and emergency room physicians," Carlson said. "It encourages professionals to provide the service for the benefit of everyone."

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