Local News

N.C. Slow In Implementing Lifesaving Wireless 911 Technology

Posted May 1, 2002

— In an emergency, you call 911 and expect the person on the phone to find you immediately. It might take some time if you make that call on your cell phone.

The Federal Communications Commission set deadlines years ago for technology to help locate wireless phone users. A WRAL Investigation found many customers are not getting what they pay for.

Say you are lost, stranded on some road in need of emergency help. You call 911 on your cell phone in hopes operators know where to find you.

For years, wireless phone users have been paying for technology that helps 911 centers locate you. WRAL's investigation found North Carolina dangerously slow to implement this life-saving service.

Mark Taylor calls Lori Slone his guardian angel. On Thanksgiving weekend 2000, Slone, a Guilford County telecommunicator, took Taylor's wireless call to 911.


"I got stung by a bee. I'm in Stokesdale. I'm not doing good. I just took an epinephrine."


"Where are you in Stokesdale?


"Right at the intersection... "


"Of what? What street are you on?"


"(Drops phone) I need some help."

Taylor dropped the phone and slipped into anaphylactic shock.

"When I made the cell phone 911 call, I guess I just assumed they knew where I was," he said.

Taylor was wrong -- nearly dead wrong.

911 operators and others call the situation "frustrating."

"It's become very frustrating looking at just phase one, because we are way past the deadline," said Richard Taylor, of North Carolina's Wireless 911 Board.

The FCC set a 1998 deadline for 911 centers and wireless phone carriers to install technology that gives the callback number and general location of the incoming call, based on the closest cell tower. Almost four years after that deadline, only 64 percent of North Carolina is compliant.

"This was new technology for everybody involved, and so I think there was a learning process for everyone," said Leigh Horner of NEXTEL.

When Mark Taylor called 911, his wireless carrier had not yet installed the locating equipment, so Slone and her colleagues sent out about 20 emergency vehicles with sirens blaring. With little to go on, they had about a 50-square-mile area to search.

"We just had a lot of folks from both sides, the public and the private sector, dragging their feet," said Richard Taylor, who is the administrator for the board that manages the money to pay for enhanced wireless 911.

Every wireless customer contributes with an 80 cent surcharge on the monthly bill. Last year, Gov. Mike Easley took $5 million from the fund to help balance the budget.

Right now, Wake, Johnston, Harnett, Cumberland and Franklin counties are fully-compliant; 75 percent of carriers in Wilson and Wayne counties have the technology in place; 50 percent in Chatham County. Durham County has none of the technology in place.

"You expect technology to be there and be able to use it and you can't quite yet," said Tonya Pearce of Durham 911.

"I know there's a lot of excuses. I know there's a lot of concerns. But we've got to make a concerted effort to move forward," said Craig Whittington of Guilford County 911.

The next phase in enhanced 911 calls for a Global Positioning System chip in cell phones, so telecommunicators can pinpoint the location of the caller.

"The biggest asset of this whole thing is that we can get resources out quicker if we know where you are, and we can get you help quicker, which, obviously, is going to save lives," said Phillip Penny of Wake County 911.

By listening to sirens over the phone, Slone was finally able to guide help Taylor's way.

Thirteen minutes after Taylor first made the 911 call, emergency crews found him unconscious in his truck in a parking lot. They saved him, but doctors would later tell him that had it taken 10 minutes longer to get to him, he probably would have died.

"If it hadn't been for Lori, I wouldn't be here," Taylor said.

The FCC extended the deadline for the second phase of wireless 911 from last year to 2005. At this time, the service is not available in North Carolina.

"I don't think any of us are looking to delay. We're working very hard to getting the 911 service provided," Horner said.

"If they, the telecommunications industry, doesn't get the point, people are going to die. That's the bottom line," Taylor said.

The fund that pays for enhanced wireless 911 has grown to about $40 million dollars. Still, no counties or carriers offer the GPS tracking for 911 calls. That could change in August when Sprint PCS plans to offer the service in Johnston County.


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