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.