For many Americans, the ability to call 911 for help in an emergency is one of the main reasons they own a wireless phone. Other wireless 911 calls come from “Good Samaritans” reporting traffic accidents, crimes or other emergencies. Prompt delivery of these and other wireless 911 calls to public safety organizations benefits the public by promoting safety of life and property.
While wireless phones can be an important public safety tool, they also create unique challenges for public safety and emergency response personnel and for wireless service providers. Because wireless phones are mobile, they are not associated with one fixed location or address. A caller using a wireless phone could be calling from anywhere. While the location of the cell site closest to the caller may provide a very general indication of the caller’s location, that information is not usually specific enough for rescue personnel to deliver assistance to the caller quickly.
That may have been a factor in the Lorenzen Wright case.
Investigators say Wright was shot to death. The police also confirmed that hours after he was seen by family members, a 911 call was made from his cell phone. Sources indicate that the sound of gunshots could be heard on the call.
Cell tower signals from that call helped investigators find the body. However, it did not help to rescue Lorenzen Wright after he was shot by his assailant(s). Wright was found in a wooded area in Collierville, Tenn., more than a week after the 911 call was made and one day before Wright was reported missing.
Wright’s grandmother asked a question that many are wondering about.
Namely, who knew about the 911 call, and when was that information passed onto the authorities in Collierville?
Five days leading up to the discovery of Wright’s body, investigators insisted that there was no sign the former basketball star was the victim of foul play.
Sources say the 911 call where the gunshots could be heard came into the Germantown dispatch.
A spokeswoman there wouldn’t say if or when that information was turned over to neighboring Collierville police. The two towns border each other.
Collierville investigators were working the case after a missing person’s report was filed four days after Wright was last seen by his family.
Wright’s mother reported he was probably carrying a large amount of cash.
So the issue is whether it was a breakdown in communications or a failure of communications on the part of the Germantown 911 dispatch.
The nation’s 911 emergency response system was built in 1967. Needless to say, it was built for landlines since wireless phones were not even a thought during that time period. The address from a landline call to 911 immediately appears on the 911 operator’s screen.
Now, with more people using cellphones exclusively, calls that bounce from tower to tower have posed significant challenges for the 911 system. Cellphone users assume that they are going to be located, but that’s not a fair assumption.
The most advanced 911 systems do not allow a dispatcher to get a specific street address for a wireless call. About 93% of the nation’s 911 centers have technology that lets the dispatcher immediately see the caller’s phone number and the location of the cell tower that picks up the call. Nevertheless, the dispatcher must request the caller’s GPS coordinates from the wireless carrier that operates the tower. This process can take several seconds and may yield a location as far as 300 meters from the caller. This is not much help in a high-rise apartment building.
Further, cellphone calls are commonly mis-routed to the wrong 911 center. Unlike landline calls, which are sent to the 911 center for their jurisdiction, wireless calls can hit the wrong tower, further slowing the response. Mis-routing also happens in metropolitan areas where multiple jurisdictions are bunched together. Problems run deeper still in areas where wireless carriers and 911 centers have not adopted the latest technologies.
As part of its efforts to improve public safety, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted rules aimed at improving the reliability of wireless 911 services and the accuracy of the location information transmitted with a wireless 911 call. Such improvements enable emergency response personnel to provide assistance to 911 callers much more quickly.
The FCC’s wireless 911 rules apply to all wireless licensees, broadband Personal Communications Service (PCS) licensees, and certain Specialized Mobile Radio (SMR) licensees.
Basic 911 rules require wireless service providers to transmit all 911 calls to a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), regardless of whether the caller subscribes to the provider’s service or not.
Enhanced 911 (E911) rules require wireless service providers to within six minutes of a valid request by a PSAP, provide the PSAP with the telephone number of the originator of a wireless 911 call and the location of the cell site or base station transmitting the call.
Phase II of the E911 rules require wireless service providers to within six minutes of a valid request by a PSAP, provide more precise location information to PSAPs; specifically, the latitude and longitude of the caller. This information must be accurate to within 50 to 300 meters depending on the type of technology used.
It appears that the call from Wright’s cellphone was mis-routed to Germantown.
Assuming that Germantown is equipped with the latest technology, the question now is when did the Germantown PSAP or dispatch contact the service provider for a telephone number and location of the cell site or base station transmitting the call and when did Germantown forward the information to the Collierville police department?
In the timeline released by the Memphis police there is a mention of a meeting between area law enforcement including investigators from Germantown and Collierville. That meeting didn’t take place until six days not six minutes, but six days after Wright was reported missing.
Could Lorenzen Wright have been saved had the Germantown dispatch acted immediately on the call and sent the information regarding the sound of gunshots to Collierville?
That question may have to be resolved in a civil suit. The answer may also play a significant role in the prosecution of Wright’s assailant(s).
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