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FTC: Guarantee 911 Cellular Calls

December 2, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Emergency 911 calls made on cellular phones must be completed even if a customer’s service has lapsed.

The Federal Communications Commission’s action Monday essentially treats emergency 911 calls from cell phones just like the same calls from regular phones.

The action clears the way for key parts of rules adopted in June 1996 to go into effect. The FCC had delayed their enforcement to address industry concerns, and minor changes were made. The rules will take effect in about a week, an FCC spokeswoman said.

``When it comes to helping people in emergency situations, we have an obligation to do all that we can to make sure that there are no impediments to their receiving help,″ said FCC Chairman Bill Kennard.

Millions of 911 calls are made over cellular phones.

On Thanksgiving Day, a couple driving through Missouri tried to alert authorities of a van bobbing and weaving in traffic, but they had trouble reaching 911 over their cellular phone. The van eventually crashed into another vehicle, killing three people.

The FCC’s rules would ensure that 911 calls be completed when a cellular customer ``roams″ into areas in which his or her company does not have an agreement with the local cellular provider to carry the call. For years, those calls typically were not completed. But the FCC now says that the situation is improving and that many cellular companies voluntarily give special treatment to connecting 911 calls.

Also, people whose cellular service had lapsed could call 911 as long as the phone’s ``mobile identification number″ had not changed, the FCC said. The identification number is generally the cellular phone number. The same would apply to cell phone owners who had never subscribed to a cellular service but who have an identification number.

The FCC will also require companies to complete emergency calls from phones without a mobile identification number, usually a phone that has not been activated.

Beginning Oct. 1, 2001, the FCC will require cellular companies to upgrade their networks with technology that tells 911 dispatchers an emergency caller’s location to within about 125 yards. In the meantime, starting April 1, cellular companies must give 911 dispatchers the ability to call back the person making an emergency call.

Unlike 911 calls made from regular phones, the location of a cell phone caller is not automatically sent to emergency dispatchers. Knowing the caller’s location is essential for a prompt response, public safety groups say.

When a New Jersey commuter train crashed several years ago, some passengers called 911 on cell phones, but that was of little help to rescuers because they didn’t know where the train was.

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