Emergency upgrades for cell phones made
The famous “Can you hear me now?” cellular phone commercials just might have some merit.
The Vail Communication Center – heart of the valley’s 911 emergency dispatch system – has upgraded its call system to handle calls from wireless phones.
The emergency-system upgrade improves the center’s ability to pinpoint the origin of 911 calls, allowing dispatchers to receive the phone number and location of the caller, said Paul Smith, manager of the Vail Communication Center.
“The new system shows us exactly where you are on the map when you make that call,” Smith said. “The only problem with the new system is that there are a lot of very old phones that aren’t able to get that connection.”
Before the upgrade, wireless calls were tracked to cell spots on tower locations, leaving the exact origin of the calls unknown. For instance, if a skier was trapped in the backcountry on Vail Mountain and tried to call for help, the dispatchers would know that the skier was on the mountain but not the direct location, and the response time for getting help to the skier would be slowed tremendously.
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“There was an incident in January in New York with two kids trying to cross a river on a raft. They had enough time to call 911, but the wireless phone didn’t work,” Smith said. “The kids all ended up drowning. If the wireless call worked, the outcome could have been different.”
Emergency calls on land lines have had tracking capability since 1998, he said. Emergency systems across the nation track by longitude and latitude locations. Less than 30 percent of communication centers nationwide are equipped to receive and provide tracking information, he said.
“Vail has a huge transient population,” he said. “It’s like counting balloons during the ski season, and they all have cell phones. And our cell phone (call) volume keeps going up.”
In 2002, 44 percent of calls came from cell phones, jumping to 54 percent this year, Smith said.
By 2005, 80 percent of the calls will be made by wireless phones, he said.
“The new technology is huge for us,” he said. “The upgrade will ensure a higher quality of service and a quicker response time for the growing use of emergency calls made from wireless phones.”
While the upgraded system is being installed, the Aspen Pitkin County Communications Center will be receiving and re-routing emergency calls, he said.
“There shouldn’t be a disruption in service at all,” Smith said.
But callers with non-emergency or administrative assistance might face some delays.
The federally mandated system upgrade was designed by Positron Public Safety Systems, an Atlanta-based company, and is being funded by the Eagle County 911 Authority Board, which manages funds collected from an existing 55-cent monthly surcharge on customer phone bills.
“The authority board gives almost all of the money it receives back to the community,” Smith said.
The 21-person Vail dispatch center handles about 220,000 phones calls per year and dispatches more than 140,000 calls per year.
Christine Ina Casillas can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607 or at email@example.com.