Despite new technology and new taxes to pay for it, most 911 centers cannot locate cell phones in an emergency.
Identifying and locating cell phone callers is more complicated than finding regular callers. It requires 911 centers, local phone companies, and cell phone carriers each to install expensive new equipment.
The Harris County 911 center that serves the Houston area has overhauled its 911 technology since a man died of a heart attack on the sidelines of a soccer field when calls for help from cell phones were fruitless. Operators there can now trace cell phone callers to within a few hundred feet or closer.
"We take the search out of search and rescue," said John Melcher, who runs 911 in the Houston area, and heads an organization of safety officials across the country. "And that's really what the technology's about."
He says the technology that Houston has now is not in wide use, despite the fact that many states have been collecting a special tax from cell phone users every month, specifically to fix this 911 cell phone gap.
"We found that across the country there are so many states that have been building up a 911 wireless fund, and yet now we find that when the technology is available, the money's not there," Melcher said.
New York is one of the states using part of its 911 fund for other purposes. New York State Assemblyman David Koon, whose daughter Jenny was killed in a carjacking in 1993, says he wants it to stop. Although Koon's daughter called 911 from her car phone, the technology to locate her was not yet available.
Nationwide, 41 states charge cell phone users a tax specifically to pay for better 911, but public safety organizations and cell phone industry trade groups say 11 of those states have raided nearly half a billino dollars from those funds and used it for other expenses.
Melcher says there are national security issues at stake, too. In the event of another terror attack, cell phones and 911 could be an early warning system.