Your life in your hands

Since 1998 the emergency services have been able to automatically locate 999 callers dialling from landlines. Now this potentially life-saving technology is starting to embrace mobile phones as well. SA Mathieson reports

I have written several times about mobile phone locating, including on services using the same technology to track children, and what the mobile networks actually hold on users. This is on an uncontroversial use of the technology, for locating those calling 999.

Powered by article titled “Your life in your hands” was written by SA Mathieson, for on Wednesday 1st December 2004 02.18 UTC

After seven days at sea in a liferaft, the five crew of the converted fishing boat Inis Mil were suffering from dehydration, hypothermia and seasickness. The vessel, with its VHF radio destroyed, had previously foundered in heavy seas and had gone down in flames as the crew has set it on fire in a last ditch attempt to attract help. Then, early on September 15, they came within range of a mobile telephone mast in Cornwall, and crew member Ian Faulkner dialled 999 on his mobile.

Fortunately, Faulkner correctly gave the liferaft’s location as near Trevose Head, just west of Padstow, and this was backed up by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s use of an automatic mobile phone locating system, activated whenever an emergency call is made. The crew survived.

Until this year, calls from mobiles, which account for more than half of the 43m 999 calls made each year, have lacked the location data provided with such calls from fixed phones. The enhanced information service for emergency calls (Eisec), run by BT, which handles 80% of emergency calls, has been automatically locating calls from landlines since October 1998. It and similar services provided by Cable & Wireless and Kingston Communications (which handles emergency calls made from landlines in East Yorkshire) override any number withholding to obtain the caller’s number.

That number is then used to connect the caller to the emergency service that covers his or her location, but since 1998 it has also been used to look up the address of the telephone. This is passed on to the emergency service, either automatically by BT’s Eisec or verbally by Cable & Wireless, which is working on an upgrade to an automated system.

In January this year, Eisec was extended to retrieve the approximate location of a mobile phone calling 999 from the caller’s network operator, and Cable & Wireless has also added this ability. Mobiles connect through a mast, or base station. Although quirks of geography and base station capacity can mean otherwise, this is usually the nearest, providing a rough guide to the caller’s location.

The mast’s location was previously used to connect calls to the appropriate emergency control room. But now, when a call from a mobile comes in to any of the UK’s 19 coastguard stations through Eisec, it is automatically accompanied by the co-ordinates of the base station, as well as details of its coverage. “This gives us a ellipse of where that mobile phone is likely to be located,” says Richard Wootton, technical manager for telecommunications for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

He says the agency has so far received just one call from a mobile phone which used global positioning system (GPS) technology. The result is passed on by Eisec, if available, but such phones are rare.

Steve Huxley, search and rescue communications manager for the agency, says a mobile phone is second-best to a proper maritime radio, as mobile coverage at sea is unreliable and a radio allows contact with other vessels. But, “in some cases, it may be the only way of alerting shore authorities to distress,” he says.

Base station coverage areas are much smaller in cities, sometimes as little as a few dozen yards in radius. London Ambulance Service NHS trust is one of 16 out of 47 trusts that have installed the service, along with 16 out of 58 fire brigades and 28 out of 51 police forces with responsibility for a geographic area, according to figures from BT.

“We often get people seeing incidents in their car: somewhere they go through every day, but don’t know the name of the road,” says Simon Harding, senior operations officer for the service’s central ambulance control. Since February, the mobile base station’s coverage ellipse is automatically superimposed on a computerised version of the London A to Z map, allowing control room staff to ask further questions to get an incident’s precise location.

As to the difference the service makes, “it’s hard to measure, as each 999 call is different,” says Harding. However, “for the most difficult types of call, it helps us find the location much more quickly.”

He adds that it could have helped with one incident before mobile phone locating was installed. “Someone had dialled 999 on their mobile, but was unable to speak because of their condition. We don’t know if that person was found dead, or recovered,” he says. “Now, with our increased ability, we can narrow down the search area.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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