Tuesday, February 12, 2008

In some rural areas, cell phones pose problems for 911 calls, which can lead to tragedy

Emergency services are often slower and less dependable in rural areas, and while cell phones should help speed response time, theyadd to the problems for rural residents, reports Sheila Hagar of the Walla Walla Union Bulletin in southwest Washington state. That's because not all counties have systems in place that can deliver a caller's number and address.

"Cell-tower information is also often sketchy or completely wrong in rural areas," Hagar writes. "It’s not unusual for calls to get routed to Walla Walla’s 911 center from phones located in Finley, Wash., or in the Columbia [River] Gorge, (Police Capt. Dan) Aycock said." The gorge cuts through the Cascade Range downstream from The Dalles, more than 150 miles west of Walla Walla. (Encarta map)

In some areas, the only location information 911 centers get is the site of the nearest cell tower (assuming it's the right one), which leaves emergency services with a 985-foot radius to look in — or not much smaller than the size of some small towns, Hagar adds. The best advice is for callers to know their location and address when dialing 911 and to realize that wireless communication (or even GPS receivers in cars) might be worthless in some rural areas. (Read more)

Hagar offers a heartbreaking sidebar, about a local elderly woman who died after trying to get help by calling 911 on her cell phone. She did not have a land line. Her body was discovered five days later, a delay caused in part because the call was considered "a hang-up" by the 911 center in Pendleton, Ore., about 30 miles south of the woman's home in Milton-Freewater, Ore., about 10 miles south of Walla Walla.

The woman's daughter discovered her mother had made a 911 call when she checked her mother's cell phone and found a voice mail message that said, "Hello, this is Tammy from the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office out of Pendleton, Oregon. I just received a 911 call from this phone. If you’re able, please call us back on 911 so we can get a location on you if there is an emergency. Thank you.” The dispatch center could not get an exact location on the call and only was able to trace call to an intersection about a mile from the woman's home. (Read more)

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