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What is E911?

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  • Written By: A Kaminsky
  • Edited By: L. S. Wynn
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2016
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Without question, the Emergency 911 system has saved thousands of lives since the very first 911 call was made in 1968 in the small town of Haleyville, Alabama. Bob Gallagher, president of Alabama Telephone, decided that such an emergency system was necessary and set his engineers to work on the problem. Communications have undergone a revolution since 1968, and although the 911 system is still a vital part of emergency management, it needs upgrading. One such upgrade is called E911. This system will help emergency dispatchers locate people calling from wireless devices.

The basic 911 system works by pinpointing a caller's location by the ground line phone number. The call is automatically routed to the closest Public Safety Answering Point and the dispatcher at that point contacts the closest emergency services personnel to deal with the call.

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However, with the advent of wireless phones, the original 911 system became unable to pinpoint a caller's location from a wireless device, and if the caller was unable to identify or describe a location, emergency personnel were hampered in rendering assistance. Callers were also further endangered if the mobile phone service in range refused to relay a call from another service provider. E911 solves these problems by working with mobile phone companies to locate a caller within 111 yards (100 meters) of the caller's geographic location - not the location of the signal tower relaying the call. Also, the Federal Communications Commission mandated that mobile phone service providers in the United States must relay any 911 phone call, regardless of the caller's service provider.

E911 came online in 1998 and was fully operational in 2001 as mobile service providers were required by the FCC to become compliant with the E911 system. Mobile phone manufacturers must also make certain their phones sold for use in the U.S. are E911-compatible.

Many communities have delayed installing E911 because of the expense involved. They argue that not enough 911 calls come from wireless devices in their area to justify the expense of the E911 service. These are generally smaller communities in more rural areas. These communities may be able to get a general idea of the caller's location by knowing the location of the relaying signal tower, but the tower may be as far as a mile away from the caller.

However, the E911 service has proved invaluable in large cities, where a much higher percentage of citizens own and use wireless devices. Police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians have lauded its efficiency in locating people in trouble. E911 is especially helpful if a child is calling from a parent's cellular phone and cannot communicate a location.

When fully implemented, E911 will, in all likelihood, save as many lives as the original 911 system has saved to date.

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