WI, Sheboygan Cell phones mistakenly calling 911 not a major problem here

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Mon 22-May-2000

Cell phones mistakenly calling 911 not a major problem here By Tom Waller of The Press Staff

Inadvertent 911 calls originating from cellular phones - a growing problem in large cities - is less of a problem in Sheboygan County.

Glenn Berg, captain of communications at the Sheboygan County Sheriff's Department, said the size of the problem for dispatchers across the country apparently corresponds with the number of cell phones in each locale.

"It's mostly a problem in the larger metropolitan areas," he said. "We only get them occasionally."

Berg said some people may not know whether they have a cell phone programmed to call 911 if a certain button gets pushed.

Putting cell phones into pockets or purses, or even on a car seat, can sometimes activate a 911 button.

Dispatchers may listen a minute or two, hearing everything but emergency instructions. Unfortunately, the line is tied up while they determine if anything is wrong.

The National Emergency Number Association, a Columbus, Ohio-based industry group, recommends that wireless customers remove the programmed feature from their phones to prevent accidental calls.

The association also recommends keeping cell phones in a place where their buttons won't be bumped.

"It's a classic case of unintended consequences: the wireless industry intends to make a phone that is safer, but people inadvertently hit the button and call 911," said Mark Adams, executive director of the association.

It is a common thing for dispatchers at the Sheboygan County Law Enforcement Center to receive 911 calls placed from cellular phones. The calls are received on either of two lines available.

"Years ago passersby at a traffic accident scene had to get to a telephone to report it," said Berg. "Today, lots of people have cell phones, so we get a call right away.

"It's good in that respect, as far as notification goes," he added. "We may get 10 or 12 calls on the same accident. If the callers are not from around here, they may have trouble giving us directions."

The origin of calls placed from traditional telephones is known immediately to law enforcement and emergency personnel. The origin of cellular phone calls is not known.

Government-mandated technology is expected to be installed over the next few years to make cellular phones as traceable to authorities as traditional phones.

"Everyone (in government) is waiting to see what kind of funding mechanism there is to make this change," said Berg. "We don't want to pay for it now before we get that help."

Heather Bernhardt, of St. Nazianz, a sales representative here at U.S.

Cellular on Wilgus Avenue, said all cellular phone manufacturers provide user guides and sales people go over the basic features.

Some models with a programmed color-coded 911 key. However, the signal is not activated unless the key is depressed two to three seconds.

Other models require the consecutive key strokes of 9-1-1, followed by pushing a key marked "yes," before 911 is activated.

Mindy Berenz, a "communications genius" for Einstein Personal Communications at Memorial Mall, said inadvertent 911 calls on programmed models can be avoided.

"You can put a keypad lock on," she said. "Or, you can go in the menu and turn off the 911 feature. Just turn it back on when there is an emergency." http://www.wisinfo.com/sheboyganpress/area/052200-4.html

-- Doris (number9@mindspring.com), May 26, 2000

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