City Tracking Location of Cell Phone Calls to 911

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Emergency dispatchers in Alexandria, Va., a Washington, D.C., suburb, can pinpoint the precise location of cellular telephones used to make 911 emergency calls, making the city the first jurisdiction in the region and one of the first in the nation to use positioning technology, the Washington Post says.

Police and Federal Communications Commission officials unveiled a tracking system showing how cell phone users from different parts of Alexandria could call emergency dispatchers, who then could look at a computerized map showing a small red triangle with the callers’ exact position. Previously, emergency operators could isolate a caller only within a quarter-mile of a particular cell tower.

Officials said the new precision provides benefits to police, fire and rescue personnel who need to get to emergencies quickly. More than 30 percent of Alexandria’s emergency calls come from cell phones, so the technology will save time in searching for crime scenes, accidents and other situations.

Such technology has obvious uses, such as when someone is abducted and has a chance to call 911 on a cell phone. Instead of relying on estimates and difficult triangulations, police can look at a screen and know that a victim is at King Street and Commonwealth Avenue, moving east.

The pinpoint mapping essentially uses cell phones as small beacons that transmit longitude and latitude coordinates. To locate a caller, police departments must be equipped with the new technology, wireless service providers must have updated transmitting capabilities, and callers themselves need newer-model cell phones that are able to provide the information the computers need to track them.

The FCC requires cell phone companies to install the infrastructure to support the new 911 systems as well as to sell phones that are compatible with them. It’s up to localities to bring dispatching systems in line with the technology, an expensive process that only a few have completed.


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