Before cutting landline, people consider emergencies

Before switching to cellphone service only, people ask how emergency dispatchers would locate them

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

Published:

 

Mary White, 77, of Vancouver briefly flirted with the idea of canceling her landline and relying only on her cellphone until she did some research that gave her pause.

"I didn't know that if you call 911 on a cellphone, that they wouldn't know where you are," White said. "If you are coherent, you can give an address, but sometimes you can't do that."

About 31.6 percent of U.S. households use only mobile phones, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. But before giving up the landline, consumers should be aware of the potential perils of a cellphone-only life during a potential emergency.

Without a landline, it's more difficult for emergency responders to locate an address in an emergency situation. That's especially a concern for seniors, such as White, who are more at risk of falls, immobility and health issues.

"My husband and I were talking about giving up our landline," White said. "I said, 'I don't know if that's a good idea at our age.' "

When someone calls 911 from a landline, dispatchers immediately receive information about the address associated with that phone number, said Katy Myers, 911 operations manager at Clark County Regional Emergency Services Agency.

"Even if you couldn't say where you were at, we would know where you're at," Myers said.

That's not the case when someone calls from a cellphone or Web-based phone and isn't able to give dispatchers an address. About 30 percent of calls nationwide to 911 come from wireless phones, according to the National Emergency Number Association.

During a call from a cellphone, dispatchers see a phone number and an approximate location based on a cellphone tower signal.

"The accuracy of the location is very intermittent and is based on where your cellphone is," Myers said. "It might lead us directly to the person or an area 400 yards in diameter that happens to be an apartment complex."

Wireless providers can give dispatchers the exact address associated with a cellphone number, but privacy laws can delay the access to that information.

"It could be minutes, or it could be hours (before a wireless provider gives 911 the information)," Myers said. "Providers have forms we have to fill out to show it's an emergency situation."

Meanwhile, "precious time is lost," White said.

Some local governments have attempted to address the problem with a registry system, such as Smart911.com. The voluntary database allows people to enter personal details, such as address, medical conditions, family members in the home and other information that could help emergency responders respond more efficiently, according to a July 12 article in USA Today.

Clark County is not among the 300 communities in 25 states that use the system. Washington, D.C., adopted the system this month, and Arkansas became the first to provide the system statewide this year, the article stated.

Still, the tide of Americans' switch to cellphone-only households is expected to continue to climb, as it has since 2003.

Although people 65 and older are the least likely to abandon their landlines, many of them do make the switch. About 7.9 percent of those 65 and older use only a cellphone, compared with about 58.1 percent of people 25 to 29, the age group most likely not to have a landline, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

"We talked about canceling our landline a little bit, but after I heard 911 wouldn't know my address, I thought I better stay the way I am for now," said White's friend, Colleen Dannat, 81, of Vancouver.

Myers is among the growing number of American households that has canceled a landline, but she advised others to give careful consideration before making the same decision.

"I do think it's important people understand what happens when they cancel their landline and they call 911," Myers said. "It really is a whole new world. Technology is powerful, but you have to know how it works when it comes down to it."

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.