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911 tax: Cellular gets safer

For Mark Libby of Clinton, making a call in Langley, a recent call to 911 from his cell phone in Island County was not only inconvenient, but he had to hang up and call a different number. - Jennifer Conway / staff photo
For Mark Libby of Clinton, making a call in Langley, a recent call to 911 from his cell phone in Island County was not only inconvenient, but he had to hang up and call a different number.
— image credit: Jennifer Conway / staff photo

By JENNIFER CONWAY

Staff reporter

If you call 911 on your cell phone today in Island County, help will have a hard time finding you.

Because most cell phones used in Island County do not have a local area code or prefix, most 911 calls made from them are routed to off-island dispatch centers. When this happens, it cans slow the response to an emergency.

But a few months from now, having a cell phone with you will be the ticket to staying safe — anywhere.

Effective Jan. 1, a new state law began charging all cellular customers in Washington 20 cents a month to pay for Enhanced 911 (E911) service. At the same time, the maximum optional county wireless excise tax will also rise from 25 cents to 50 cents.

Both taxes exist on wired telephones which, in Island County, are already served with E911. With the service, 911 dispatchers at Island County’s ICOM emergency communications center can locate a caller’s address with an automatic database.

E911 cellular service will give dispatchers similar information: a caller’s name, phone number and a pinpoint location — whether or not the caller is at home.

According to the state’s Department of Revenue, the tax is expected to generate $3.2 million in 2003, $13.8 million between 2003 and 2005 and $14.9 million between 2005 and 2007. The estimates are based on a current total of 2.2 million cell phones in use in Washington.

Between the new tax and the increased excise tax, counties will be able to get enough money from the state to upgrade their emergency call centers to implement E911 for wireless users.

Money will be paid out in two phases. Phase 1 will pay for the technology needed to retrieve a cellular caller’s name, home address and phone number.

Phase 2 will provide a dispatcher with a caller’s physical location, no matter where he or she is.

According to ICOM Director Tom Shanghnessy, all cellular 911 calls within Island County will soon be routed through ICOM in Oak Harbor.

Currently, most 911 cell calls made in Island County are dispatched through the Washington State Patrol dispatch center in Marysville. To reach ICOM, a caller needs to know where he or she is and must have the presence of mind to ask to be transferred.

A direct connection to ICOM will eliminate the middle-man and save time, Shanghnessy said.

“It will be much faster and it will provide a callback number,” he said.

Callers who have been unable to reach an Island County dispatcher from their cell phones know how frustrating and dangerous reaching the wrong county can be. Clinton resident Mark Libby recently called 911 from his cell phone to report he had seen an accident on Maxwelton Road.

Instead of reaching 911 dispatch in Island County, Libby wound up talking to a Marysville dispatcher.

“They found out where I was and gave me a phone number to call the Island County Sheriff’s Office,” he said.

Libby said he had to hang up and call a different number.

“It was inconvenient, especially if it had been a real emergency,” said Libby.

At this time, one cellular provider, QWEST, routes Island County emergency cellular calls directly to ICOM. Shanghnessy said all cellular 911 calls from Island County should be going through ICOM by June.

Phase 2, which Shanghnessy said could take over a year to implement, will allow a dispatcher to locate a caller who is unable to speak, if the line becomes disconnected or if a caller doesn’t know his or her location.

Implementing Phase 2 means updating ICOM’s maps. The update will allow a dispatcher to pinpoint a caller’s longitude and latitude.

A second condition of implementing Phase 2 requires cell phones to have a global positioning system (GPS) hookup.

Wireless companies are on board

Jason Kalk of Lincoln Computers in Clinton — a cell phone retailer — said newer phones are being produced with GPS chips built in for no extra charge.

“They are priced comparable to cell phones with similar features and sizes,” he said.

Jenny Weaver, a spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless said, her company is trying to seed the market with as many GPS-capable handsets as possible. She said when the E911 service is up and running, buying a new phone might not be necessary.

“There’s still quite a bit of work that has to be done before it’s totally working,” Weaver said. “A lot of dispatch centers don’t have the capability to receive those calls yet.

Mike Bagley, a public policy for Verizon said the company supports legislation when they pass bills, such as the E911 tax.

“[The tax] creates a mechanism to meet our end of 911 deployment,” he said. “It’s a benefit to us because it helps us rapidly deploy 911 calls.”

Bagley said Verizon’s tax surcharge will help to pay for grid mapping. Mapping and surveying personnel will use specific detailing to help ICOM determine a caller locations.

But the news about E911 isn’t all good. For South Whidbey residents in an emergency situation, callers may be physically able to make a call, but they may not be able to make a connection. Several “dead zones” on Whidbey Island prevent cell phones from getting a signal.

When that happens, there’s nothing ICOM or the wireless companies can do to help.

“You could just be out of luck,” Shanghnessy said.

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