When the windows shattered in the little white house in Chillum and flames lapped upward to the children's bedrooms, a neighbor grabbed her cell phone and dialed 911. Her call flew through the skies of Prince George's County -- only to land at the wrong fire department, miles away in the District.
For several minutes, the caller and the 911 operators frantically tried to figure out what was going on. The operator didn't recognize the address, but the woman kept repeating it and asking for help, according to the D.C. fire department's analysis of the 911 tapes.
The Feb. 3 blaze, which spread quickly inside the small wood-frame house, killed a woman and two of her children. But it was not the first time that the response to a life-threatening -- and ultimately fatal -- emergency was delayed because a cell phone call to 911 didn't work the way it was supposed to.
There are no figures available on how many rescue efforts go awry because of trouble with wireless 911 calls, but the problem is national in scope. In January, four teenagers sank in a boat off Long Island Sound after making a desperate call for help from a cell phone. Emergency workers had been unable to pinpoint where the call had come from. The roots of the problem are both technological and man-made.
First, there are the glitches that often accompany any kind of cell phone call -- the static, the echo, the inability to make a connection and, in the Chillum case, the fact that a wireless signal can get picked up by the wrong cell phone tower. A recent study by Consumer Reports showed that about 15 percent of the 911 calls made on cell phones during a test didn't get through.
And even when the calls are successful, most 911 call takers do not have access to automatic addresses or call-back numbers, as they do with calls from traditional phones, so they don't immediately know where to send help. A nationwide effort to fix those problems, called enhanced 911 or E911, is a lumbering regulatory task that has already missed one key deadline on the road to implementation, set for 2005.
Although these problems may be more common now as the number of cell phones continues to multiply and many people give up their traditional phones, the issue first gained widespread attention about 10 years ago, when an 18-year-old woman called 911 on her cell phone after she was abducted from a mall in Rochester, N.Y.
Operators listened as Jennifer Koon was sexually assaulted, as she pleaded for help -- and as she was killed. But they had no way of finding her.
Late last month, her father, New York State Assemblyman David Koon, helped pass legislation there providing money to help create a 911 system that could have located his daughter. "That technology wasn't around for Jenny's case," said Koon, whose entry into politics was spurred by his daughter's death. "But it's available now, and we should be able to use it."
The issue particularly resonates because many people treat cell phones like modern-day life preservers, clutching them on dark streets, keeping one in the car and working them into emergency plans for coping with a terrorist attack. Nearly 30 percent of all 911 calls nationwide are made from cell phones, said Jim Goerke of the National Emergency Number Association, and that figure climbs to about 50 percent in big cities, including Washington.
But the image of security is sometimes illusory. In the case of the Chillum fire, the neighbor's urgent call for help was transmitted into the night air to be captured by a nearby cell tower. The problem was that Chillum is so close to the District that the signal was up for grabs by whichever tower caught it first. In that case, it happened to be the D.C. tower, and District police received the call.
The 911 dispatcher sent the call to D.C.'s fire department. By the time authorities figured out that the fire on 17th Avenue was in Maryland, the blaze had ripped through much of the house, said Alan Etter, spokesman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Services Department. Killed in the blaze were 8-year-old Christian Romero; his 13-year-old sister, Veronica; and their mother, Maria Romero, 42. The children's 10-year-old brother managed to leap out a second-story window but suffered severe burns. He still has nightmares of his sister's screams for help, a relative said.
Such scenarios are common in the District, which shares borders with numerous jurisdictions, said Peter Roy, a deputy to the District's chief technology officer. In Friendship Heights, "calls usually go to both Bethesda and D.C. 911, and both agencies end up responding," he said.
If the Chillum caller had dialed 911 on a traditional phone, police and fire departments would have pinpointed the location and sent help to the address that automatically popped up on their computer screens. This is the safety net created for 911 years ago, so that even if the caller passed out or was attacked , rescuers still knew where to go.
The safety net for 911 calls via cell phones has many more holes.
In 1999, the FCC tried to fix the discrepancy, enacting regulations that would give cell phone 911 calls the same safety features as land-line calls. First, cell phones would be required to have the technology to display their numbers when they pop up on caller ID. In turn, 911 call centers would be required to upgrade their phones so they can read these numbers The second, more sophisticated requirement mandates that cell phone companies start making their phones with Global Positioning System technology that can pinpoint a phone's location within about 100 yards.
Both phases were to be completed by 2005. But most carriers missed a deadline last October for making their call-back numbers always show up on 911 calls. Though many of the companies -- including Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless, Sprint Corp. and AT&T Wireless -- have the technology to comply, they were granted waivers after they told the FCC that their compliance wouldn't do much good because many local governments don't have their necessary upgrades.
Locally, Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Frederick counties can capture the number of any 911 call made on a cell phone within each jurisdiction, but they still cannot pinpoint the location of the call, said Larry McDonnell, a spokesman for Sprint PCS. The District will not be able to capture calls until November, McDonnell said. Currently, no jurisdictions in the Washington region can locate a cell phone calling for help.
But Roy, of the District's technology office, cautioned that even those two improvements will not offer a "technological panacea." Cell-phone calls to 911 likely will still be vulnerable to problems.
In rural Montana, for example, pinpointing a call within 100 yards would typically identify the caller. "But that's useless in a dense, urban location like the District," Roy said. "Let's say you can determine that the call came from the Farragut North Metro stop. That's a lot of ground to cover before you can find one person calling for help."
Indeed, the pinpointing ability might not have helped a resident of a densely populated District neighborhood who collapsed in the hallway of his apartment building last month after he was stabbed while trying to quiet a fight.
For 30 minutes, relatives and friends of Yong Chen, a 20-year-old Chinese immigrant who lived in Chinatown, frantically dialed 911. But an ambulance arrived only after one of the few residents in the building who uses a land line called 911.
It was too late. Chen died shortly after arriving at the hospital. His attacker fled, and police have not been able to find him, although they have named a suspect.
City officials said they cannot disclose what happened to the cell phone calls in the Chen case because the records are part of the homicide investigation. But his family members said they ache at the memory of Chen bleeding to death while their calls for help repeatedly failed.
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