Houston County, Georgia E-911 Able to Pinpoint Cell Phones

Houston County's E-911 Center can now pinpoint a cell phone caller's location within 100 meters, a feature that's expected to save lives.

But it's not a feature that's available everywhere.

In fact, some smaller counties in Georgia, such as Crawford County, don't even have the capabilities to trace a call from a home phone, much less pinpoint the location of a cell phone.

In Houston County, the new feature has been in effect for about a month, said Houston County sheriff's Capt. Ricky Harlowe, E-911 director.

The new technology, which gathers information from global positioning satellites, means that Houston County 911 operators will be able to find a person who may not be able to speak but who has been able to dial his or her cell phone, Harlowe said.

The system, for example, can track a critically injured motorist who's gone off an embankment but has no idea where he or she has crashed, Harlowe said.

Another example, Harlowe said, is that a person who has been abducted may be able to dial 911 on a cell phone but be unable to speak. Yet the victim's location can be narrowed down to within 100 meters with the new technology, Harlowe said.

There is a drawback. A moving or mobile target cannot be tracked, Harlowe said. If the abduction victim was in a moving car, the call could not be tracked unless the victim repeatedly kept calling 911 and hanging up, Harlowe said.

But the marriage of cellular technology and 911 tracking technology to locate stationary cell phones is the best that's available, he said. And Houston County is ahead of the game.

In neighboring Bibb County, the E-911 Communications Center for Macon-Bibb County will add the ability to locate 911 cell-phone callers when its new $1.3 million computer-aided dispatching system goes online this year, said Macon police Lt. Dominick Andrews, the center's director. No word yet when that will be but it's expected to be soon, he said.

Sheryl Hobbs, E-911 director for Peach County, said she plans to lobby Peach County commissioners for the enhanced feature to locate 911 cell callers for the fiscal 2006 budget.

More people are abandoning traditional home phone lines and using only cellular phone lines to save money and maximize on cell features like unlimited weekend calling and no roaming fees, she said.

"It's desperately needed everywhere, no matter how small the county, is but it's hard to obtain because of the cost to a small county," Hobbs said.

Crawford County Sheriff Kerry Dunaway also faces a money problem. His county doesn't have a 911 center, but residents and people driving through the county may dial 911 and the call is routed to a seven-digit number for the sheriff's office, which in turn dispatches all emergency calls.

That means callers must tell a sheriff's dispatcher where they are located, Dunaway said. And Crawford County cell phone calls, which are routed through the closest tower, may reach Peach and Houston 911 operators first, who in turn route the call to the sheriff's office, which then dispatches the appropriate emergency agency.

"Public interest and costs became an obstacle," Dunaway said. "When we found out the cost, the fees would not support E-911 and we'd have to raise taxes - that watered down the public interest."

There are not enough telephone lines to support E-911, Dunaway said. Because there are not enough lines, the fees that can be generated per line to fund E-911 won't produce enough revenue for the construction of a 911 center, hiring and compensation of 911 operators and additional law enforcement officers to check each 911 call, he said.

But in Houston County, the $1.50 charge per wire and wireless phone line per month is able to offset the cost of the E-911 service.

"It's a small price to pay to save a human life," Harlowe said. "It's the best insurance policy you can buy to save your life."

Saving lives - if not the loss of lives - is what propelled the Federal Communications Commission to require cell phone companies to develop the technology to enable the pinpointing of the location of a cell phone caller.

Elaine Sexton, 911 program administrator for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said there have been cases across the country in which a person on a cell phone with 911 operators has died before his or her location could be determined.

Had the location been determined, it's believed the person would not have died, she said.

But while there is federal law requiring cell phone companies to develop the life-saving technology, there is no law requiring the creation of 911 systems, Sexton said.

"No law mandates that you have to have 911," Sexton said. "It's up to local governments whether to implement the service."

However, there is a law that local telephone companies must provide for anyone dialing 9-1-1 to reach a public service assignment point, which in Georgia is the sheriff's office in the absence of a 911 system, Sexton said.

In other words, a 911 call is routed to a number that goes to the sheriff's office in the absence of a 911 system, she said.

Also, it's up to local governments to ensure that cell phone companies are complying with the FCC ruling, Sexton said.

In Houston County, all cell phone providers are in compliance, and Harlowe said he's not about to let any slip through the cracks.

"We keep a close handle on who the carriers are," he said.