Law enforcement officials adapting to the cell phone age

Published 11 January 2011

Law enforcement officials are collecting more cell phone numbers for emergency alert phone lists as more people move away from land telephone lines; during emergencies land telephone lines are often knocked down and first responders do not have many cell phone numbers on file; emergency cell phone technology is rapidly improving with more accurate traces; 911 first responders hope to incorporate video, text, and photos in the future to better assess emergencies and communicate

Law enforcement officials are learning to adapt to the age of cell phones. Emergency responders are slowly collecting more cell phone numbers for emergency phone lists as increasing numbers of people move away from land line telephones.

As the Tauton (Massachusetts) Daily Gazette reports, nearly 16 percent of adults in the Northeast live without a land line and about 70 percent of all 911 calls are made from cell phones.

The winter storm that blanketed the East Coast on 26 December 2010 highlights the increasing need for law enforcement officials to have cell phone numbers on file. The powerful storm knocked down land telephone lines, disrupting emergency alert phone list calls. Local agencies have few cell phone numbers on record, and as a result, vital information was not sent to those who needed it.

In an effort better to prepare itself, the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department in Massachusetts is actively encouraging individuals to add their cell phones to emergency alert phone lists.

“Something’s eventually going to happen, and people will care if their number is on the list,” said Nicole Callahan, the head of the emergency list system in Plymouth and Bristol counties.

The alert system notifies people of missing children, home evacuations, fugitives on the loose, and other important safety announcements like where shelters are available in the event of a disaster or storm.

Cell phones present 911 first responders with both a challenge and a unique opportunity.

Unlike land lines, 911 responders do not have the ability to immediately trace the caller to his or her exact location, a significant asset to first responders. Technology, however, is rapidly improving so that a 911 responder can, within thirty to forty-five seconds, trace a caller’s location to within twenty feet using GPS, cell phone tower triangulation, or both.

In crowded urban areas twenty feet is not specific enough as first responders must struggle to determine the building or floor that the call originated from, losing time that could make a valuable difference.

Beginning in 2005, a federal law required that all emergency calls made on cell phones be traceable to a caller’s location within 300 meters. Phones purchased before 2005 may not have the technological capability to be traced.

As technology continues to improve and more people switch to cell phones, new channels for communication in emergencies are being opened.

Tom Ashe, deputy director for the Massachusetts 911 Department, envisions eventually incorporating texts, videos, and photos to communicate with people.

These new tools will help responders better assess an emergency as well as those who may have difficulty communicating such as the hearing impaired, those with other disabilities, and young children.