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Pierce wireless 911 ready for cell phone callers

Cell phone users encountering emergencies can take advantage of Pierce County's new wireless 911 system.

Pierce officials, who've been working to bring 911 to wireless callers here for about four years, entered phase two (the final phase) of the project in January, according to Lt. Mike Knoll of the sheriff's department.

"We started testing the system around the first of the year and are still in the process of testing it," Knoll, who's coordinating the overall effort, said Wednesday.

Pinpointing the origin of a cell phone call is a major benefit of the county's latest 911 upgrade, he said. However, this capability also depends on service available from the cell phone user's particular carrier and the specific cell phone being used.

In phase two, carriers must choose from one of two methods to deliver wireless 911 to customers, he said. They either opt for smart-set technology, in which a Global Positioning System (GPS)-type of feature is built directly into the cell phones themselves (mandated for all new cell phones being sold), or create a smart network incorporating the technology throughout.

"Each carrier has some uniqueness," he said.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) long pushed for 911 to be offered to wireless callers nationwide, but a lack of funding slowed the progress, the lieutenant said. In fact, FCC-imposed timelines came and went without significant parts of the country having such availability. A change in federal law ultimately allowed for a funding mechanism to get the systems built.

Wisconsin followed with legislation providing funding, placing responsibility for wireless 911 on municipalities hosting it and the carriers, too, he said. However, a provision for the funding received by Pierce and other governments to end at the close of next year has him concerned. And while Pierce got a portion of its system funded, the county was forced to make expensive related improvements in order to proceed.

As recently as last year, the arrangement for cell phone callers to 911 here was set up so those calls rang into a special number, with dispatch staff trained to answer these accordingly, Knoll said. That was the first phase and, when the county moved into the second phase, tracing callers' locations became a matter of relying on the addresses of cell towers. But because signals can travel quite a distance, it wasn't an exact finder.

The traditional 911 operation is based on two main factors: The originating phone number plus the location and number of the emergency service agency designated to respond to that area, he explained. The challenge was translating those factors into a system workable for callers on the move.

"How do you do this with a cell phone?" he said was a major question to be answered.

The phone equipment the county previously used wasn't capable of handling the assignment and had to be replaced, Knoll said. Likewise, replacement was necessary for the computer-aided dispatch units at the sheriff's department.

County officials worked with AT&T (formerly SBC), which controls its primary access point and provides the six incoming 911 trunks in this vicinity, he said. Lining up latitude and longitude sets were involved. He credited Director Janet Huppert of the county's information services department and Rand Klugel, county land management specialist, for their input as well.

Klugel said last week the wireless version of 911 in Pierce is similar to the land-line kind, which has intelligent center lines in place. There are also address signs going by placement of dwelling, though the wireless variety have to be more accurate. The center lines are used for routing and the address points for locating.

Additionally, aerial photos enable dispatchers to see exactly where a cell phone 911 call is coming from on a map, he said. These photos are to all be accessible by next month, the last part of the project.

Although Knoll acknowledged the new wireless 911 is comparable to conventional 911, he issued some cautions to cell phone callers. If they have an older hand set, they may want to replace it, considering the GPS locator being built into cell phones is a relatively recent development. Moreover, all cell phones are really like "little two-way radios," he reminded, subject to the effects of weather, terrain, foliage and other variables.

"You may be driving down the road, enter a different cell and suddenly the signal drops out," he said as an example.

Meantime, circuits in a wireless system can load up just like in a land-line system, he said, making it difficult to get through. As for wireless' reliance on address points, Klugel said data sets should be updated at least every three years in response to development and change in the region.

Around 40 of the 72 counties in the state either have reached the final phase of wireless projects or have them in progress, Knoll said. Among Pierce's neighbors, this is true for St. Croix, Dunn and Pepin counties.