Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Improvements in 911 equipment, but what about cell phones?

The Capital Times is reporting that County Board Supervisor Brett Hulsey claims that the Dane County 911 Center "has added one communicator and one communications supervisor, so the center is now fully staffed with 12 people. More equipment is planned as part of a $30 million investment the county is making in the public safety communications system."

That's good news.

What Hulsey doesn't indicate is whether or not these additions and improvements yet meet the guidelines set forth in the '04 report of the center by an outside consultant. Perhaps even more importantly, the public still hasn't gotten a straight, honest answer when it comes to the center's ability to track cell phone calls.

Apparently, the federal mandate is that they should be able to "find a caller's location within an area 200 feet by 100 feet from the actual location." What we've heard from various Dane County officials, however, varies wildly enough that anyone paying attention would be disinclined to ever again use a cell phone for emergency purposes.

This is all made even more interesting by the recent attention being paid to privacy issues with regards to cell phones. Service providers are required to provide real-time tracking data to any Public Safety Answering Point (or PSAP) within 6 months of the request being made. This same information has often been sought by federal authorities wishing to get the real-time location of alleged drug traffickers, fugitives and other criminals, sometimes without demonstrating probable cause. That's a whole other issue, and one worthy of much scrutiny and skepticism, but it also brings up some issues relevant to the Zimmermann case. If such pinpointing technology exists and its use is federally mandated in the case of emergency services, why isn't it being used to guarantee follow-up calls and police dispatching to the origin of the call (as is currently the case with calls made from landlines)?

An entity called "Dane County Public Safety Communications" is officially registered with the federal government as one such PSAP. That would suggest their compliance with federal E911 regulations, and the ability to pinpoint the location of a cell phone (as was done in the Kelly Nolan case, with a cell phone that wasn't even making a call, which also has not yet been explained).

So what's the truth? Do we have the ability to locate cell phones in a reasonably accurate fashion, but just fucked up in this case? Or are we lying about our emergency service's capabilities, something that might well put us in violation of federal regulations? Neither option is particularly appealing, and I'd love for both to be wrong. But until we're given a straight answer, there's only speculation and a creeping feeling that we're not being as well-taken care of as we ought to be.

1 comment:

jo man said...

Great investigative job, Emily.. not everyone would have thought to dig up the FCC regs; let alone the Catch-22 dilemma of tracking vs. privacy issues. Here's another angle: how many cell phone lines do they have in the center? That is, how many incoming lines are devoted to cell phones, and if it is, say, 6, and they're all tied up...

I had a life threatening emergency (to me) in Dec 2004 and when my wife tried our cell phone--I couldn't quite manage it--she got a busy signal. Our landline was out of order, so she ran next door to use the neighbor's. Fortunately she got through and I had an ambulance in a few minutes.

Another item: 12 positions equals a fully staffed center. When I left in 1998 there were 12 positions, usually filled. Population increase since then? Proliferation of cell phones since then? You get the idea..

BTW, to put in into perspective, in '98 there were TWO lines reserved for cell phones.

Keep up the good work!

The Lost Albatross