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5/26/2006
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Emergency Services Tap Cellular Technology

Wireless phones that are GPS-enabled can help public safety authorities determine the location of a caller, even if the caller doesn't know where they are or is unable to speak.

Emergency services from wireless vendors to non-profit groups are increasingly tapping into technology to build alert systems and location-based platforms.

In one example, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children this week launched a program to highlight an emergency service allowing cellular subscribers to sign up online to receive text messages on any cell phone. The organization teamed up with carriers and other groups last year to design the Wireless AMBER Alerts system.

The service, which is slowly gaining traction throughout the nation, offers an instant text message on the subscriber's cellular phone. The free program also works with pagers and PDA, said Bob Hoever, director of special operations for the Center for Missing and Exploited Children on Friday.

"The alert directs the subscriber to immediately call 911 or the police agency investigating the abduction," he said. "When a child is abducted, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack, and the more eyes and ears you have looking for the child, the smaller the haystack."

More than 224,000 emergency 911 calls are made daily from cellular phones, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. The CTIA estimates more than 70 percent of those living in the U.S. have cellular service, accounting for approximately 210 million subscribers.

The goal to create awareness has proved slow going. Although people have registered, Hoever said it's not clear how many subscribers have signed up for the free service. He did say there have been 266 children safely returned to their families since the Amber Alert was introduced in Arlington, Texas, about nine years ago.

Verizon Wireless offered another signal that cellular carriers are providing emergency services. Verizon Wireless on Friday said 911 operators can now locate 95 percent of the customers from their handsets.

Verizon said about one-third of 911 call centers have upgraded their systems and can receive the location information from callers using cellular phones, PDAs, smartphones and other wireless devices.

Wireless phones that are GPS-enabled can help public safety authorities determine the location of a caller, even if the caller doesn't know where they are or is unable to speak. The GPS location technology integrated in the phones makes it possible for the handset to transmit location data automatically to emergency services, helping them to dispatch emergency assistance faster.

The Federal Communications Commission required by the end of 2005 that at least 95 percent of all wireless handsets have the ability to give emergency personnel the location of 911 callers. AT&T Inc.'s Cingular Wireless is using a network-based service to locate callers who dial 911, the company said. Sprint Nextel sought a waiver from the FCC, which has not responded. The company has told the FCC more than 84 percent of its customers had wireless phones capable to identify location.

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