Cell phone-only homes make 911 call tracking challenging
By Andy Johns
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Last week, Heather DeGaetano cut the cord.
The North Chattanooga resident and her husband ditched their landline home phone and its $60 monthly bill, going cell only.
"It just seemed like we were spending a lot for something we weren't using," she said.
Twenty percent of American households have come to the same conclusion, according to a study released this month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The study, reported by The Associated Press, reveals that in the last half of 2008, cell-only households topped landline-only homes for the first time. Twenty percent of households reported only having cell phones, compared to 17 percent with landlines but no cells. An additional 15 percent of households reported having landlines and cells but take few or no calls on the conventional telephones.
The survey's authors say the demise of landlines in many households may have been spurred by tighter finances during the current recession. In a similar 2003 survey, 3 percent of households used only wireless phones, while 43 percent used landlines exclusively.
"It was an expense we didn't need to have," said Katie Harbison, who got rid of her landline in November.
"Literally, the only people that called it were doctor's offices that called to remind us about appointments," said Ms. Harbison, who lives off state Highway 58.
Ms. DeGaetano said she expects landlines to fade over time.
"I can't imagine my friend's 17-year-old daughter ever having a landline," she said. "I don't think she'd even know how to get one unless she can text AT&T and say, 'I need a landline.'"
Some say having a landline may be safer when it comes to dialing 911.
"If you call from a landline, they can immediately assess where you are and send emergency responders," said Brainerd resident Shannon Burger, a volunteer firefighter in Fort Oglethorpe.
Some fire departments do not have the ability to trace the locations of cell phone calls as precisely as home or business phones, she said. Ms. Burger said she considered cutting her landline but keeps basic $23 per month service in case of emergency.
Hamilton County 911 Board Chairman Don Allen said 68 percent of calls to the 911 center come from cell phones, and he figured the study's 20 percent estimate might be low. He said the emergency system's accuracy in pinpointing call locations depends on the phone carriers, because some implant global positioning chips in the handsets.
Usually, the calls can be traced to within 10 meters of the location with GPS-enabled phones or within 100 meters for non-GPS phones, he said.
"I'd say we're within 95 percent of knowing where the cell phones are," he said.
In July, the 911 board will begin a campaign to collect cell phone numbers from area residents for its reverse 911 notification system, Mr. Allen said. With the cell numbers, officials could send out recorded messages to cell users to warn of pending emergencies, which they already do for landlines, he explained.
Soddy-Daisy's Mrs. Irvin said the 911 issues had crossed her mind but, in the end, she decided to shut down the home phone.
"The risk isn't worth the $60 or $70 per month," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Copyright 2009 Chattanooga Publishing Company