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Tracking cell calls improving in Utah

Dispatch centers are adding new technology

Provo's dispatch center, above, expects to have new technology in place by Jan. 1 that will help it track cell phone calls. Two other dispatch centers, in Logan and Tooele, are already using the new system.
Provo's dispatch center, above, expects to have new technology in place by Jan. 1 that will help it track cell phone calls. Two other dispatch centers, in Logan and Tooele, are already using the new system.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

PROVO — Many cell phone users in Utah will soon be safer when they dial 911 because dispatch centers around the state are adding a new technology to track cell phone calls.

Features added to cell phones and new equipment going into dispatch centers still won't provide dispatchers with the exact address of a cell phone caller, but the new system can be nearly as good. That capability will help dispatchers send emergency responders to callers who don't know where they are or provide wrong addresses.

The system is already in place in dispatch centers in Logan and Tooele, which were selected as test sites for the implementation of Phase II of the Enhanced 911 project. Calls in those two cities still come in with Phase I information — cell tower, tower section and call-back number — but dispatchers now can hit a re-transmit button and get a better fix on the caller's location.

"We've seen accuracy to within 1 meter or 2 meters (3 to 7 feet)," said Randy Auman, communications director at the Logan City Consolidated Dispatch Center. "The wireless phone companies are trying to get within 20 meters, but some calls come in better than that. We can tell a caller which side of the street he's on and even which corner of an intersection."

The new technology is increasingly important because of the popularity of cell phones. More than half of all 911 calls in Provo are made from wireless devices, but dispatchers can't trace them the way they can conventional calls from land-line phones. Provo resident Scott Aston died on Oct. 1, 2004, when a Provo dispatcher thought Aston said he was at 950 N. 500 West, a parking lot, instead of in his apartment at 915 N. 500 West. The dispatcher couldn't trace the cell phone call, and Aston's body wasn't found for four days.

The new system for tracking cell phone callers already has helped Tooele County dispatchers deal with their vast service area.

"We've got 7,000 square miles in the county," Sheriff Frank Park said. "People from the Wasatch Front come out to recreate, and when they get in trouble they generally don't know where they are."

In one case, the tracking system allowed a dispatcher to send help directly to a lost and injured ATV user, Tooele dispatch supervisor Lt. Regina Dekanich said. It also frequently helps dispatchers send aid to stranded motorists on I-80.

"We use it all the time," she added. "It's working."

Provo will be the third center in the state to have the system if it meets its self-imposed deadline of Jan. 1. Installing the Phase II system will cost $240,000 for new hardware and software, Provo chief administrative officer Wayne Parker said, and $83,000 a year for maintenance.

Other areas of the state will soon follow, thanks to grants from the state 911 committee.

The committee has given $2.4 million in grants to 13 other dispatch centers to help fund the upgrade. The largest grant, $700,000, went to the Valley Emergency Communications Center that serves Salt Lake County, said Sam Saeva, the committee's financial officer. Valley Emergency has collected another $734,000 from the localities it serves.

The Weber Consolidated Dispatch Center will install the equipment using a $400,000 grant and $234,000 it raised from cities in Weber and Morgan counties. Jurisdictions already awarded grants should be Phase II-capable by mid-2006, Saeva said.

The money for the grants comes from a 13-cent monthly fee charged on all phone bills in Utah. The committee has another $1.5 million on hand to award in grants, Saeva said. The entire state should be using Phase II technology by the end of 2008.

Provo didn't apply for a grant because it wanted to move faster. Instead, the city used money saved up from its share of the 65-cent 911 surcharge that also appears on each phone bill, Parker said.

The dispatch centers don't have a federal or state deadline to meet, but cell phone companies do. By Dec. 31, they must prove to the FCC that either 95 percent of their phones have global-positioning satellite chips or that 95 percent of their users can be tracked along the company's tower network.

Phase II isn't a perfect technology. It won't provide altitude, so a caller in a tall office building could be difficult to locate, Provo's Parker said. And if a cell phone call ends before a dispatcher sends a retransmission signal, the system won't be able to track the location of the call.

Most disturbing, perhaps, is the rising popularity of Internet phones. Voice-over Internet Protocol (VOIP) allows customers to make calls from wherever they can access a computer or lug their laptop, but there is no technology for tracking those calls.

"That's something that throws everything we know out the window," the state's Saeva said. "That's going to cause a whole new series of technological questions, problems and approaches."