Charges begin for
cell phone-locating 911

Police say a new way of tracking 911 calls from cell phone users in Hawaii would have helped Jetica Matic when the tour plane she was piloting crashed in a remote Big Island lava field April 18.

Rescuers had to search for four hours for the crash site because newcomer Matic could not give authorities an exact location to find her. An Ohio couple suffered severe burns in the crash.

A wireless enhanced 911 system coming to Hawaii could have helped locate the wreckage, said Lt. Charles Chong, of the Honolulu Police Department's Communications Division.

The system will provide police dispatchers a wireless caller's name, address and location, allowing emergency personnel to quickly find cell phone 911 callers.

"It's like caller ID on steroids," said Chong. The system "reduces confusion over location and reduces time needed to get to you to deliver services," Chong said.

Someone having a heart attack away from home or a lost hiker who does not know his location could be quickly found by calling 911 on a cell phone.

But the new system is not guaranteed to work. There might be problems locating people with cell phones in dead areas since factors such as topography and weather could prevent a signal from being picked up.

Hawaii's cell phone subscribers began paying a 66-cent monthly surcharge this month to pay for the new service.

The state Legislature passed a bill this session to require the surcharge, and the governor signed the bill.

Republican lawmakers objected to the bill, saying customers are being overcharged by the 66-cent surcharge for about 750,000 cell phone subscribers in the state.

The bill was prompted by an FCC ruling mandating wireless carriers to upgrade their equipment to be able to deliver services for the enhanced 911 system by the end of 2005.

Chong hopes to have the system in place on Maui by Christmas, followed by Oahu, working county by county until all are equipped.

The cell phone enhanced 911 would work similarly to the land-line version where embedded information pops up at the 911 center, which is located at police dispatch.

A cell phone caller can be located in two ways. One method (network) narrows down a caller's location by triangulation using cell phone signals that bounce off cell sites. A second method uses global positioning satellites, which would require that phones be equipped with GPS chips.

GPS technology can pinpoint a caller more precisely, some as close as 10 meters.

The wireless enhanced 911 system is being used in more than 30 states, Chong said.

Michael Bagley, executive director of public policy for Verizon Wireless West Area, said Hawaii is the last of 12 Western states to pass a law to fund the system.

The start-up costs for all the counties and the cell phone companies have been estimated close to $6 million, which they expect to collect in a year's time, said Linda Smith, the governor's senior policy adviser.

Anyone who calls the CrimeStoppers hot line will continue to be afforded full anonymity.


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