Technology helps METCAD track cell calls
URBANA – Emergency calls on cell phones are now being tracked more precisely by 911 dispatchers in Champaign County.
Greg Abbott, 911 coordinator for the Metropolitan Computer-aided Dispatch service, said the agency handles all wireless calls in the county.
The agency can use the enhanced tracking to locate cell phone users who call 911 in emergencies. About 60 percent of all 911 calls to METCAD are from wireless phones, he said. Last year, the agency handled 350,647 telephone calls, resulting in 151,489 dispatches of emergency equipment.
"Hopefully we will have accurate information that will guide responders to the scene of an incident," Abbott said.
Abbott said enhanced 911 on "land line" (regular phone) service can determine the location of a call based on the phone service of that phone.
"Wireless devices are not fixed at a specific location," Abbott said. "This makes it difficult for the 911 telecommunicator to dispatch assistance if the caller does not know where they are located."
Wireless 911 service uses global positioning chips installed in newer cell phones to determine the caller's location. Some wireless carriers are also capable of a triangulation method used to determine an approximate location of a wireless phone.
METCAD began answering wireless 911 calls in 1988, when cellular phone service first came to the area, according to Abbott.
In 2002, the agency could determine the caller's telephone number and the location of whatever tower was carrying the cell phone call.
"They had the ability to take the cell phone call, but no idea of where the call was made from and no way to trace it," Abbot said.
"We got a phone number and the address of a cell tower carrying their call," Abbott said. "That gave us the ability to call them back if the call went dead and a point from which to start a ground search."
The improvements in the system now give dispatchers a number for the cell phone, the location of the cell tower and also the ability to make "an attempt at the caller's location, which varies based on the technology of carriers," Abbott said.
"Callers still need to be aware of their location when they call 911," Abbott said. "Just because we have this new technology doesn't mean it will work perfectly every time. People need to pay attention to what road they are on, what mile marker or landmark they just passed. They still need to have some idea of where they are at."