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The Buzz on 911 and Cell Phones

May 11, 1999|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A weekly column about humans as they interact with things that beep, buzz, ring and download.

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Dear Button Pusher: Let's say I'm driving in the 310 area code with my 714 area code cell phone and I dial 911. Who answers the call? I've been tempted to try it myself, but I guess that's not a good idea.

--IN CASE OF AN EMERGENCY

Dear Emergency: You are as wise as you are curious. You show a restraint and maturity that many on California's roads do not.

Since the advent of the cell phone, authorities have received "emergency" calls that suggest the electronic devices may indeed interfere with normal brain function. The CHP, whose operators automatically receive your call, report these 911 cell phone shockers:

* calls requesting directions.

* calls asking what the holdup is on the freeway.

* calls to find out when the basketball game starts.

* and one call from a man who sang "Margaritaville" along with his radio to emergency operators. ("He wasn't very good," said Anne Richards, a CHP public information officer.)

So back to your question. A CHP operator from one of the state's 24 communication centers will answer your call. Which one does, however, depends upon your location, not the area code of your cell phone.

Unfortunately, with today's limited cell phone technology, authorities only have an approximate idea of your location. (This is opposed to land phone lines, which immediately provide the caller's address and phone number.)

Sadly, that means dispatchers have to rely on John and Jane Q. Public to cough up their location and cell phone numbers. And, of course, sometimes John and Jane don't have a clue where they are or what their cell phone number is--two info gaps that can cause major delays in sending help.

But there is hope. A pilot program in parts of Los Angeles County is now testing new technology that provides a cell phone caller's location to within one mile. The program's next phase, a year or more away, will try out technology that will give the caller's precise location.

So, if you want to sing a song to the CHP on your cell phone, you might want to do it before the new technology becomes standard.

Cellular Phone 911 Fact: In 1985, the CHP had 29,000 emergency calls from cellular phones. In 1993, that number rose to 1.6 million. Last year, there were 3.6 million.

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Dear Button Pusher: My son sent me an online Mother's Day card for the first time this year. It was nice of him, but I prefer the old-fashioned card. I don't want to hurt his feelings though.

--MAIL MOM

Dear Mom: Go ahead, hurt his feelings. If you want a card in the mail, then you should get a card in the mail.

It's not surprising you feel this way. Let's face it, an online anything is designed to be easy and convenient--for the sender. The least you can expect for all your hard work of raising that little rugrat into a big rugrat is for him to buy, sign and mail a card.

Online Greeting Card Fact: Hallmark Cards saw a 200% increase in online greeting cards for Valentine's Day between 1998 and 1999. Hallmark officials were expecting a similar jump for Mother's Day online cards this year.

For comments and questions upon the human-machine relationship, please e-mail to martin.miller@latimes.com or write to Button Pusher, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or fax to (213) 237-4888.

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