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Consumer Reports

Cell phones instead of land-lines in homes may hinder 911 help, officials say | (KRT) It may be a good deal for cost-conscious consumers, but emergency responders say people who use new FCC rules to transfer land-line phone numbers to cell phones are giving up a critical advantage when calling 911.

A call to a 911 dispatch center from a land-line phone automatically displays the address where that phone is located, making it possible for emergency personnel to respond quickly in situations in which a few minutes can potentially save a life.

In contrast, it will be at least two more years - and probably three - before many 911 call centers are equipped to locate people who use their cell phones to dial 911, officials said.

The 911 location capability of land-line phones can be especially critical in households with elderly, young children or people with medical problems that could impair their ability to describe to dispatchers their exact location, emergency responders say.

Young children may know enough to call 911 in an emergency, but they might not be able to tell a dispatcher exactly where they are and what the problem is. Sometimes in medical emergencies, people manage to dial 911 but cannot speak.

"In the vast majority of call centers in Wisconsin, if they have an open 911 line, they'll just send a squad to that address to check it out," said Capt. Jay Maritz, of the Walworth County Sheriff's Department.

"In a cell phone situation, where would we send the squad?"

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Maritz, vice president of the Wisconsin chapter of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officers, said consumers need to educate themselves about all of the advantages and disadvantages when deciding whether to give up their land-line phones for cell phones. A cost comparison alone won't suffice, he said.

In households with children or elderly, he said: "The land-line phone will still be the better choice."


A week ago, new Federal Communications Commission rules took effect that allow people to keep their phone number when switching cell phone providers within the same local calling areas. The rules guaranteeing local line portability also permit consumers to keep their current land-line phone number if they give that line up and transfer the number to a cell phone.

More people are cutting the cord to their land-line phones and going exclusively with cell phones. The new FCC rules are expected to accelerate that trend, said William Esbeck, executive director of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association.

"A small percentage of people today don't have land-line phones and just use cell phones," Esbeck said.

"There's no question that that percentage will continue to grow and the option of local line portability makes it more attractive."

Esbeck said consumers contemplating a switch from land-line to cell phones need to weigh the advantages of wireless convenience and cost against the advantages of land-line phones with 911 location capability, dependable signal and battery-free operation.

"It's incumbent on consumers to be aware of the full implications of their decision," he said. "Most consumers taking a step like this will take the time to educate themselves."

But most people are not aware of all they are giving up when they cut their land-line phones in favor of cell phones, said Dave Sleeter, Rock County communications director and vice president of the Wisconsin chapter of the National Emergency Number Association.

"People just aren't thinking about this," he said. "I understand that convenience and cost are very important, but it's taking us a huge step backward in getting people help in emergencies.

"You go cell phone, and good luck."


Earlier this year, legislation was enacted in Wisconsin to install technology at 911 answering centers needed to locate cell phone callers. A surcharge on cell phone users will help pay for the equipment.

The state Public Service Commission is writing rules to implement the surcharge and determine the process for 911 centers to apply for grants to help pay for equipment upgrades.

Gary Evenson, of the commission's telecommunications division, said the monthly surcharge is not expected to be in place until late 2005. When the legislation was approved, legislators estimated that the surcharge would be 75 cents for each cell phone or pager.

Grants could be awarded to 911 centers soon after the surcharge is implemented, said Evenson.

Sleeter estimated that it will be at least three years before any 911 answering centers in Wisconsin have the cell phone location technology. For some areas of the state, it will take longer, he said.

Sleeter said he understands the lure of convenience and cheaper rates offered by cell phones over land-line phones and admitted that his wife briefly considered cutting the family's land-line phone to save $30 a month. But for him the choice was a no-brainer.

"What's it worth to have that security?" he said. "I'll pay the extra $30. To me, that's cheap insurance."



A land-line telephone automatically displays the address where the phone is located when used to call 911 dispatch centers, thus speeding emergency responders to that location.

New FCC rules make it easier for people to give up their land-line phones by allowing them to transfer their land-line phone number to a cell phone in the same calling area.

Despite legislation enacted this year to implement the needed technology, it will be two or three years before 911 call centers in Wisconsin get the equipment necessary to locate people calling 911 using cell phones.

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© 2003, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services