It is a 911 dispatcher’s
worst nightmare: a wireless phone call comes in from someone who is seriously
injured. Teetering on the knife edge between life and death, the victim is
barely able to retain consciousness, let alone provide an address or directions
to first responders.
In an effort to tip the
balance in such situations, the Bartlett, TN, Police Department (BPD) has
installed Application Data Systems’ (ADSi) MapForce software. Offered as part
of ADSi’s Computer Aided Dispatch system for law enforcement, MapForce delivers
on-screen real-time mapping of wireless calls. With this data, BPD dispatchers
no longer have to guess about a victim’s location, nor waste time trying to
decide which unit to send.
Wireless Mapping: How It Works
Since 1998, the FCC has
required wireless carriers to provide police, fire and EMS dispatch services
with a wireless caller’s phone number. Since 2001, carriers have also started
to offer Phase II Enhanced 911 (E911) services which specify the caller’s location
within 300-600 feet.
The system does this by
triangulating the cell phone’s location between the three closest towers to it.
Once the three towers have been specified, the distance between the handset and
each of the towers can be determined by measuring the time it takes a signal to
travel between them. With this data, the cell phone’s location can be estimated
to an accuracy of 300-600 feet, then displayed on an electronic map.
It is this data that ADSi’s
MapForce uses to ease the BPD’s job. MapForce is a software option offered as
part of ADSi’s Computer Aided Dispatch System for Law Enforcement (CADForce).
Whenever a wireless call comes into the BPD’s 911 center, CADForce analyzes its
Phase II locational data, then displays the caller’s estimated location with a
cell phone icon onscreen.
In Bartlett— the first
municipality in Tennessee’s Shelby County to implement automatic wireless
mapping— the data is integrated into a computer-generated city map. “The map is
divided into color-coded districts,” BPD dispatch Bill Hiner explained. “When a
Phase II wireless call is received, the system displays the cellular phone
number, marks the location in the appropriate district, and offers the closest
street address to this location.”
“This is an improvement from
previous E911 location technology,” Mike Perkins, ADSi’s director of sales,
added. “In the first phase of the E911 rollout, the best dispatchers could hope
for was the caller’s phone number and their proximity to the nearest tower
based on signal strength. This latter measurement only provided first
responders with a circle of territory to check. Now, with Phase II, they’ve got
a location and street address to work with.”
Obviously, being able to
determine where a wireless 911 call is coming from makes a big difference is
dispatching help. But it’s not just a matter of speed; wireless mapping also
improves a department’s ability to deploy resources. Not only can the nearest
car be sent to the scene, but the impact on a department’s overall street
presence can also be managed on the fly. Moreover, being able to see a pattern
of wireless 911 calls can help senior officers make accurate, relevant
deployment decisions. In the case of major disasters (such as a 9/11-style
building collapse) where cell phone coverage stays intact, it can also help
first responders in locating and rescuing victims.
For the Bartlett Police
Department, the $12,000 it cost to install MapForce has been money well spent.
“It appears to be working great,” Lt. Bill Lloyd, the BPD officer in charge of
communications, stated. Hiner added, “With MapForce, we can respond to calls
faster. Moreover, knowing where our officers are heading to is a big plus, because
it makes it easier to manage overall force deployment.”
MapForce also minimizes
jurisdictional conflicts between Bartlett and other adjoining municipalities.
“Historically, our biggest challenge in dispatching calls has been deciding
whether the person should be served by the Bartlett PD, police from the City of
Memphis, or from other departments,” Hiner said. “With MapForce, we know where
they’re calling from, and which department should be dispatched to help them.”
The Big Picture: Why Wireless Mapping Matters
Just how important is
wireless mapping to 911 operators? Well, according to the National Emergency
one-third of the 150 million 911 calls made in 2000 came from cellular phones.
“This is a ten-fold increase from nearly 4.3 million wireless 911 calls just 10
years ago, and the number will more than double to 100 million calls in the
next five years,” NENA’s Web site said. “It is anticipated that by 2005, the
majority of 911 calls will be from wireless callers.”
If these numbers aren’t
sufficiently impressive, consider the “Wireless 911 Tragedies” compiled by NENA. For instance, in
Rochester, NY, a 19-year-old student was abducted in her car, then subsequently
attacked and killed by her abductor. Because she had managed to dial 911,
dispatchers were able to listen in horror as the situation evolved. But they
weren’t able to help, because they couldn’t determine where she was. The same
story was played out in Lansing, MI: dispatchers received a wireless call from
a woman being stabbed by her ex-husband. By the time they had figured out her
location, she was dead.
During the mass shooting in
Columbine, police received all manner of crank wireless calls. The trouble was
that, without wireless mapping, they weren’t able to determine which calls came
from within the high school— and thus were genuine — and which didn’t.
Meanwhile, in Miami, Karla
Gutierrez drove her car into a canal. She called 911 on her wireless phone, and
spoke for 3.5 minutes. However, police were unable to find her before she
drowned. Had Gutierrez had access to Phase II service, she might have been
found in time.
These are just a few of the
“Wireless 911 Tragedies” listed at www.nena.org/Wireless911/Tragedies.htm.
Unfortunately, until Phase II E911 becomes a nationwide standard by the end of
2005, more such tragedies will likely take place.
The Bottom Line
Deploying wireless mapping
has been a major success for the Bartlett Police Department. It’s helped its
dispatchers provide faster service to callers, aided supervisors in deploying
patrol officers more effectively, and, most importantly, smoothed relations
between adjoining departments.
Most importantly, wireless
mapping helps the BPD save lives. Small wonder Bartlett’s dispatchers and
commanders endorse wireless mapping: it truly makes a difference.
James Careless is a freelance writer specializing in
first responder coverage. He can be reach at firstname.lastname@example.org.