PhotoSadly, the 9-1-1 system was perfected just about the time cell phones came along and rendered it obsolete. Emergency dispatchers can pinpoint calls from landlines and get rescue equipment rolling immediately. But wireless calls? Don't bet your life on it.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates that more than 10,000 wireless callers die each year because dispatchers can't determine their exact location, yet the commission recently approved new rules that fail to fix the problem, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a not-for-profit investigative journalism organization.

The problem is that the technology used by AT&T, Verizon and other wireless carriers can provide reasonably accurate location information outside. But if you're in a large apartment or office building, it's a different story.

The Public Integrity report told the tale of Joan Lantz, a 71-year-old South Carolina woman who called for help when she developed trouble breathing. She was unable to give 9-1-1 dispatchers her location, so police and firefighters had to go door-to-door in her large apartment complex.

By the time they found Lantz, 44 minutes later, she was dead, her cell phone still clutched in her hand.

Good enough, and cheaper

It's a typical story and one that Public Integrity says wouldn't happen if wireless phones were equipped with the latest technology that can provide exact location information even when deep within a large building complex.

The FCC proposed tough new technology rules in February 2014, but AT&T, Verizon, and other wireless carriers said the rules would be too expensive to implement and argued that, instead, existing technology like the wi-fi and Bluetooth devices found in nearly every home worked well enough most of the time.

Although consumers don't realize it, their wi-fi and similar devices are "visible" to specialized tracking equipment and can be used to supplement the GPS data provided by wireless phones, although the process is not foolproof. 

The carriers said that technology was good enough and -- not coincidentally -- was paid for by consumers rather than the carriers. Associations representing firefighters, police, the elderly, and others dissented, saying the technology wasn't up to the challenge and noting that it would be useless during a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or other disaster when the electricity fails.

"Captive" associations

These groups said the carriers had ignored their comments and instead lavished money and attention on a few associations tightly tied to the telephone companies, which fell into line with the carriers' position.

“[This] … is a perfect example of how big money and big corporations can make it appear there’s been a democratic and open process, but in fact they’ve corrupted the science and bought off the very organizations that are supposed to be a watchdog in protecting the public,” said a former senior FCC official who asked to not be identified in order to speak more candidly, Public Integrity reported. “And in this case, the result means more people will die.”

It's something to keep in mind when you're thinking of doing without a landline. 


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