Well more than half of the households in the Cayman Islands cannot be pinpointed exactly by the territory’s 911 emergency communications system if the 911 caller is unable to communicate with dispatchers.
The reason? Landline telephones only exist in about 40 percent of the more than 24,000 households in the islands, according to the most recent survey by the government statistics office.
Nearly 100 percent of Cayman Islands households now own at least one cellular phone, wireless or mobile communications device.
It’s a problem 911 Center Director Brent Finster and the government Department of Public Safety Communications identified some time ago in the department’s strategic plan: “Cellular phones are becoming ubiquitous in the society and, unlike the landline phones, calls placed to 911 in the Cayman Islands during an emergency situation do not provide the Public Safety Communications Centre with the address or location of the caller.”
It is for that reason that Mr. Finster, one of the more tech-savvy people in the islands, keeps a personal landline phone.
“I still have my landline phone at home, which my wife and I typically only use to order pizza and in case we need it for an emergency situation,” Mr. Finster said. “I would strongly advise those homes that have [individuals who are] elderly, disabled or with significant medical histories to consider keeping their [landline] phone.”
All locally operating telecommunications companies are required by license to provide, at no cost, updated information to 911 regarding customers, including the person’s name, customer service location and phone number.
With landline phones, the 911 call-taker receives both the phone number and the location data provided by the telecom company using standard caller identification technology. This means 911 gets the caller’s home address and phone number automatically.
There are two types of cellular/wireless phones, post-paid accounts and pre-paid accounts. With post-paid cell phones [for which customers receive a bill based on usage each month] telecom companies provide some information including numbers and billing addresses. The billing addresses are usually post office boxes and don’t help 911 call-takers, Mr. Finster said.
Pre-paid cell phone accounts do not require any of the information and so 911 typically receives nothing about those customers from the telecommunications companies.
“Therefore, we do not get the actual location of the cell phone in real time,” Mr. Finster said, unless, of course, the person is able to speak and give 911 operators a decent idea of their location. There is an agreement between 911 and the telecommunications companies that allows emergency personnel to receive information about the nearest cell tower and the direction or sector from which the 911 call was placed. However, even that process doesn’t pinpoint calls exactly and it takes time.
“Depending on the time of day, this can take 30 minutes or more to accomplish and provides a fairly general location from where the call originated,” Mr. Finster said.
It can be a public safety problem, the 911 center director confirms. “If there is no location information available to the 911 telecommunicator automatically and for some reason the caller is unable to provide a location, the lack of wireless location technology could mean the difference between a rapid emergency services response … or not.”
The 911 center has a number of policies in place to counteract potential issues with locating 911 callers who cannot or will not give their locations.
Mr. Finster said all 911 calls are answered within 10 seconds and the average time it takes to dispatch police, fire or ambulance from the time the phone rings to dispatch is about one minute, 38 seconds for priority calls.
Dispatchers are trained to extract street locations, businesses, landmarks or any other recognizable location information from callers in order to speed up emergency response, but that only works if they are able to communicate with the caller, Mr. Finster said.
Upgrading technology to pinpoint a cell phone caller’s location is somewhat complicated and will be expensive, Mr. Finster admits. Many cities in the U.S. and Canada are still only in ‘Phase 1’ of cellular tracking technology, which means they can locate the nearest cell tower and direction the call came from, but not a precise location.
‘Phase 2’ of cell tracking initiatives, which some North American entities have achieved, allows cell signals to be traced by latitude and longitude coordinates and is accurate to within 50-300 meters, depending on the technology being used.
This kind of technology costs money and the solution used to fund it within the U.S. and Canada might prove politically difficult in Cayman.
“In North America, this is typically funded by a surcharge on [landline] and wireless phones that is then split with a portion going to the telecommunications companies for cost recovery,” Mr. Finster said. “I cannot provide a [cost] estimate at this time.”
The Public Safety Communications Department has previously suggested the formation of a task force to determine the best approach and cost for such a location technology.