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Mobile phones can mask exact location for 911 calls

By June Watanabe

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 04:46 p.m. HST, Mar 11, 2011



Question: We live in a downtown high-rise condominium. One night recently a police officer came to our door asking whether anyone had called 911, as they had received a call for an ambulance, supposedly from our unit. Everyone in our household had been asleep; no one had called 911. The next morning, I found out that the call was from a unit with a similar number. Fortunately, they were able to locate the person requesting assistance. How does the 911 tracking system work for high-rise condos and apartments? Is the system tied into the phone company records or GPS (global positioning system), which only provides the building location? Does the 911 system depend on the caller to give an exact apartment number?

Answer: The 911 call you refer to involved an "uncooperative" caller, which resulted in police and emergency services workers having to track down the apartment.

Based on details you provided, including the address of your condominium, Patricia Dukes, chief of the city Emergency Medical Services Division, was able to find out what happened.

She said the call for help came from a mobile phone. The caller gave the address but said, "I don't know" when asked for an apartment number and hung up.

If a call to 911 is made on a land line, both the apartment number and address of a high-rise location would be known, Dukes said.

However, calls from a mobile phone would be traced via a "reverse-GPS," in which only the address, not apartment number, is revealed.

Dukes also explained that the call for an ambulance was for an "unresponsive patient," which would possibly entail the use of automated external defibrillators.

Because police are equipped with AEDs, "they respond to all those kinds of calls with us," Dukes said.

Both HPD and the ambulance crew were eventually able to connect with the caller, determine the correct apartment and help the patient.

"All was well," Dukes said. "Everybody was doing everything they could to find that patient."

The bottom line: The emergency system does have an accurate way to track 911 calls if an exact location is verbally given or if the call is made on a land line.

But if a call is made from a mobile phone and information is sketchy, "it's more difficult," Dukes said. "But that's our challenge and that's what happened that evening."

Question: What happened to Mari-Ela David of Hawaii News Now? We have not heard or seen her on TV for a while now.

Answer: Star-Advertiser "TheBuzz" columnist Erika Engle reported on Dec. 3 that David had left the station after recently getting married and was moving with her new husband to the Big Island.

Mahalo

To a kindhearted young man. While waiting for the light to turn green on Hamakua Drive and Kailua Road on the evening of Feb. 17, we watched an elderly woman in a wheelchair approach the crosswalk. When the light turned green, she entered the street but appeared to have trouble maneuvering. The young man in his mid- to late 20s in a dark-colored shirt crossing toward her, pushing a bike, threw the bike down onto the grassy median and hurried to help her get to safety. He saved this lady a lot of trouble and energy trying to get across and helped waiting motorists make it through the light. I hope his random act of kindness is returned to him tenfold! -- 'Alohi

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Write to "Kokua Line" at Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 7 Waterfront Plaza, Suite 210, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., Honolulu 96813; call 529-4773; fax 529-4750; or e-mail kokualine@staradvertiser.com.






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