Originally created 06/12/06

911 system trails in technology



ATHENS, Ga. - Georgia lags behind many states in implementing an "enhanced 911" system that allows emergency workers to pinpoint the location of emergency calls made from cell phones.

But the state is trying to catch up fast - partly because of how much money in fees county governments are passing up.

In the late 1990s, the Georgia General Assembly authorized counties to levy a monthly fee on cell phone subscribers to help pay for 911 services in a county - either $1 for so-called Phase I locating services or $1.50 for Phase II.

The Phase I upgrade means 911 operators can see the cell phone number a 911 call is coming from, along with the nearest cell phone tower to the caller.

In Phase II, the calls can be pinpointed to within a radius of 150 yards or less.

Most 911 centers already are equipped to trace calls from land lines back to a particular number and address.

But as of 2005, only 55 percent of Georgia's counties had completed a Phase I locator system and just 15 percent had done Phase II, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office. By contrast, neighboring Florida was at 90 percent Phase I and 72 percent Phase II, and Alabama was at 96 percent Phase I and 54 percent Phase II, according to the GAO.

Being able to track a call is important, 911 officials say, in situations such as when children make calls and can't say what their location is or someone calls but can't talk because of a life-threatening situation.

More than a third of 911 calls nationally come from cell phones, according to the National Emergency Number Association. Administrators from local 911 centers say the percentage is even higher - more than half, and going up fast.

Some states have implemented statewide plans to move to Phase I and then Phase II, but in Georgia, it's been left up to individual counties, said Elaine Sexton, the 911 coordinator for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

Part of the reason counties are beginning to adopt emergency cell phone tracking is the revenue they're missing from monthly fees that could help fund their 911 centers. But another is simply the dramatic increase in cell phones and cell phone calls to 911.

In Oconee County, cell phones now outnumber land-line phones by close to a 3-to-1 margin, judging from fee collection statistics kept by the county's 911 center.

The county is now collecting about $260,000 yearly from the $1-per-month fee charged to cell phone users for 911 services. (Cell phone companies are allowed to take up to 30 cents of the fee to cover their own costs of installing and running the technology to make the system work.)

By contrast, Oconee gets about $174,000 a year from land-line fees of $1.50 per subscriber, $1.05 of which goes to the county's 911 operations.