Can Police Track Your 911 Call? Maybe Not

Twelve years ago, 18-year-old Jennifer Koon was carjacked as she was getting cash from an ATM at a shopping mall in suburban Rochester, N.Y. Somehow during the ordeal Jennifer managed to dial 911 from her car phone.

But she didn't say anything. The 911 operator had a hunch there was trouble on the other end of the line, but all she heard was muffled voices and couldn't tell where the call was coming from.

The operator could only keep the phone line open in the hopes that Koon would answer. She never did. Two hours after her 911 call, police found Koon's car -- and her body in the front seat.

At the time, the technology to trace 911 calls made from mobile phones did not exist. It does today -- but only two-thirds of the 25 largest cities in the country have upgraded their systems to use it.

And the government can hardly plead budget issues for not doing so. The country's 190 million cell users pay a monthly "911 surcharge" that's intended for wireless 911 service. That amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

But in many states the money goes into a general fund for public safety. Koon's father, David, says this is a dangerous practice.

"Say you're feeling chest pains and you pick up your phone and dial 911, and just as you're putting it to your ear you pass out. You might as well kiss yourself goodbye because they're not going to be able to locate you in certain areas," he said.

Bittersweet Victory

The most high-tech 911 call center in the nation is in Chicago, where operators will soon be able to both see and hear callers. By late 2006, the city's police department plans to integrate surveillance cameras with the city's 911 call center.

When the system is fully operational, thousands of cameras around the city will be able to track cell phone callers.

An emergency in a densely populated city is one thing, but in other areas -- like the town where Jennifer Koon lived -- the situation can be much more dire.

In Suffolk County on New York's Long Island, 911 operators use a system that tells them the location of the cell phone tower that picked up the call.

In addition, the Suffolk police use mapping software that employs satellites to trace cell phones equipped with GPS chips and also computers to triangulate the caller's location by measuring the proximity of the closest cell phone towers.

The system feels like a victory to David Koon, who was elected to the New York State Assembly after his daughter's death -- but it's also a bittersweet reminder of what could have been for his daughter.

"If this system had been in place and the technology been available, Jenny would be alive today," he said. "No doubt in my mind."

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