Many 911 Systems Can't Find Cell Phone Callers

When Terry Pedigo collapsed on a soccer field, 911 dispatchers couldn't locate where the calls for help originated because they came from cell phones. It is a fatal flaw that exists in many 911 systems across the country.

Three years ago, 45-year-old Pedigo was playing soccer at River Grove Park near Houston, when he had a heart attack and collapsed.

People on the sidelines quickly grabbed their cell phones and called 911, but their efforts were fruitless. Pedigo didn't make it.

"There's not a day that goes by that we don't think about him and miss him," said Debbie Pedigo, Terry's widow. Adding to the sense of loss is a sense of frustration, because she believes her husband might be alive today if it were not for a gap in the 911 system safety net.

When people call 911 from regular telephones, the emergency operator can pinpoint the address they are calling from. But for those who call for help from a cell phone, the chances of being found go down dramatically. That's because most parts of the country have not yet adopted available technology called enhanced 911, which allows a person calling form a cell phone to be located.

The operator who responded to the call about Pedigo was unable to figure out the location of the emergency, according to tapes of the calls that were obtained by the TV show Inside Edition.

Here is a transcript.

Caller: Get a g---damn ambulance moving.

Operator: Sir, they have to know where to send it sir, we have to know where.

Caller: So what do you want me to do? I don't have an address. It's a park, it's River Grove Park. It doesn't have an address.

Operator: River Boat?

Caller: My God, you guys can't.

Operator: Hold on. Hold on you need to settle down

Caller: I got a guy here, he's dying man.

Though it has since been upgraded, Houston's 911 system at the time could not automatically and precisely locate cell phone callers.

Lost Boys in Boat

The same flaw occurred last month in New York City, where four young men went out in a small rowboat and disappeared on a cold winter night. A cell phone call to 911 could have been their last chance, but it could not be traced.

The boy who called 911 was heard saying "We're on the Long Island Sound," and then, "We're going to die."

But the call is garbled, and police say the operator failed to follow procedure. Still, the 911 system in New York is not enhanced 911, and authorities had no way of knowing where the boys called from. Rescue boats were delayed a full day and the boys have not been found.

"Doesn't matter if these kids made a stupid decision to do something; they still had the right to be saved," said Virginia Badillo, one of the boy's mothers.

A Complicated Location System

Identifying and locating cell phone callers is more complicated than finding regular callers. It requires 911 centers, local phone companies and cell phone carriers each to install expensive new equipment.

Since Pedigo's death, the Harris County 911 center that serves the Houston area has overhauled its 911 technology. Operators there can now trace cell phone callers to within a few hundred feet or closer.

"We take the search out of search and rescue," said John Melcher, who runs 911 in the Houston area, and heads an organization of safety officials across the country. "And that's really what the technology's about."

He says the technology that Houston has now is not in wide use, despite the fact that many states have been collecting a special tax from cell phone users every month, specifically to fix this 911 cell phone gap.

"We found that across the country there are so many states that have been building up a 911 wireless fund, and yet now we find that when the technology is available, the money's not there," Melcher said.

New York is one of the states using part of its 911 fund for other purposes. New York State Assemblyman David Koon, whose daughter Jenny was carjacked in 1993, says he wants it to stop. Although Koon's daughter called 911 from her car phone, the technology to locate her was not yet available.

"Jenny was eventually shot 3 times and killed, and there is no reason in today's world, with technology we have today that any other life should be lost," Koon said.

Cell Phone Taxes Shifted

Nationwide, 41 states charge cell phone users a tax specifically to pay for better 911, but public safety organizations and cell phone industry trade groups say 11 of those states have raided nearly half a billion dollars from those funds and used it for other expenses.

"Not spending the money on 911 wireless technology means we can't find you, and if we can't find you we can't save you," Melcher said. "So what's really at stake here is human life and property."

Arizona's 37-cent tax on cell phone users helped create a $29 million 911 fund, but state legislators have used half of it for other purposes. State Sen. Bob Burns said state lawmakers shifted the funds to plug up a $500 million budget deficit.

Although he would like to see the state shift the money back at some point in the future, he contends that for now, much of the state isn't technologically ready for the 911 upgrades anyway

"I don't think that people in our state who are in need of health care and education and other things that are included in this spending that we are doing now would have a real strong problem with that," Burns said. "I have a problem with it myself, but these are not normal times. I mean, we are in a budget crisis."

‘Lives Will Be Lost’

Debbie Pedigo disagreed strongly.

"That is terribly wrong," she said. "That should not be. It's a shame that we have people that can do that and live with themselves. You know my conscience wouldn't let me live with that."

Melcher says there are national security issues at stake, too. In the event of another terror attack, cell phones and 911 could be an early warning system.

"So it's very important that we know where they are and we know how to patch them through to the appropriate authorities to meet that kind of response," Melcher said.

"If they don't implement this, lives will be lost," Debbie Pedago said. "That's a fact. It will happen."