The cell phone in your purse or pocket that has become such an indispensable facet of life could, depending on how it's used, save a life or complicate the response of police or firefighters in an emergency.
Dispatchers in the Marana Police Department know this all too well. About 65 percent of all the calls MPD receives now come from cell phones - one of the highest ratios among police and fire agencies in Southern Arizona - and it's created special challenges for the small department.
The large number of cell phone calls to MPD is due to an unusual combination of factors that includes a fluke of geography, said Marana Police Chief Richard Vidaurri.
The wide-open spaces in Marana and nearby unincorporated areas provide for an abundance of cell phone towers. With current 911 technology in Pima County, calls from wireless phones get routed to the police or fire agency closest to the tower or in the area that the tower faces and covers, Vidaurri said.
Unlike traditional "land line," calls from cell phones don't automatically flash the caller's address on the consoles of 911 dispatchers in Tucson who are responsible for forwarding calls to the nearest police or fire agency.
"We have to try and triangulate, so to speak, the general location. If the call comes in on a cellular telephone we have the (phone) number and the location of the tower that it came from, but we don't have the address of where that person is calling from unless we can get the caller to provide us their location," Vidaurri said.
The frequency of calls coming from motorists on busy Interstate 10 that runs the length of the town, coupled with the growing use of wireless phones in general, has also contributed to the increase in cell phone calls flooding the dispatchers who direct responses from their small communications center at 13291 N. Lon Adams Road.
"If you get one vehicle accident on the interstate, you'll be swamped for a while with calls," said Sheila Blevins, communications supervisor for MPD. "But we would rather have multiple reports of an incident than people not reporting just because they assume someone else has already called."
MPD fielded a total of 1,943 calls for service last month. Although the number of calls pales in comparison to the 8,326 received by the much larger Pima County Sheriff's Department last month, Marana is the leader in the amount of calls originating from mobile phones in the Pima County area, said Anita Velasco, communications administrator for the city of Tucson, the agency that operates the primary 911 call center.
"It's definitely higher than what we're seeing in other local jurisdictions. The city (of Tucson) runs closer to 35 percent," Velasco said.
Other regions of Arizona, particularly in the northern reaches of the state, may also be receiving cell phone calls on the level of Marana, Velasco said.
Oro Valley Police Department receives about 40 percent of its calls from cell phones, said OVPD spokeswoman Becky Mendez. The sprawling service area of Rural/Metro Fire and Rescue, which covers parts of Oro Valley and large swaths of unincorporated Pima County, also averages calls from cell phones at about 40 percent, said Rural/Metro Spokesman George Good.
Because of the wide areas covered by the cell phone towers, Marana dispatchers will often field calls not intended for their department, such as accidents on I-10 that are the jurisdiction of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, Vidaurri said, and that can place a minor strain on MPD's manpower.
"A lot of the cell calls will eventually get forwarded by us to the Highway Patrol for reports of stranded motorists or someone speeding on the interstate; but if it's something we can handle, something immediate, then we'll go ahead and send an officer until the DPS can get there," Vidaurri said. "It's not what I would call a real major issue, but it does cause us to provide an officer that otherwise could be serving the town."
Marana has coped well with the burden of cell phone calls, Blevins said, and she doesn't believe it's placing an undue strain on the MPD. Marana dispatchers have grown accustomed to the vagaries of cell phone calls, and one dispatcher was even honored three years ago for her innovation in guiding a group of people to safety.
MPD dispatcher Michelle Otero was presented with the Red Cross Real Hero Award in 2001 after assisting a group of out of town hikers who became lost in the desert and called for help using a cell phone.
The group of three hikers, which included a young child, was in danger of dehydration in the August heat. The caller described landmarks to Otero, who over time was able to guide the group to rescuers.
"Michelle did a wonderful job, but that just underscores some of the costs and benefits to public safety when it comes to cell phones," Blevins said.
Cell phones have added greatly to the public's safety by allowing people to call from their vehicles and remote locations, but they've also created headaches for police and fire-paramedic dispatchers.
The amount of unintentional calls made by people accidentally hitting 911 keys on their cell phones is on the rise nationally and place a greater burden on emergency services dispatchers. People also assume cell phones provide 911 operators with their location the same as a home or business phone, and may fail to provide their location during the confusion of an emergency.
The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International, a Florida-based nonprofit organization that seeks to enhance public safety communications, recently surveyed its members and found 70 percent of citizens were unaware that cell phones do not automatically provide a caller's location, said William Cade, APCO's director of 911 service and comm center operations.
"Wireless calls take longer to process, we have to find out where these people are calling from and sometimes there's complications in that. In our minds, delayed service is the same as denied service. If someone is having a heart attack, or some other emergency that requires CPR, those extra minutes could result in what is essentially denied service," Cade said.
Marana is unfortunate, but hardly alone in its abundance of cell phone towers, Cade said, noting that some jurisdictions in the U.S. field even more than 65 percent of their calls from cell phones and it creates problems.
"Being the closest tower doesn't always mean that you are the closest agency to dispatch services in times of crisis. Dispatchers are trying to figure out where the caller is and where is the closest agency to provide the services they need. Dispatchers end up being overloaded because they're getting calls from geography that isn't theirs," Cade said.
The solution to the cell phone dilemma for Marana and all jurisdictions in Pima County may be coming soon.
Public safety agencies in Pima County are moving toward a two-phase upgrade in technology that will eventually allow 911 operators and agency dispatchers to receive the location of cell phone callers.
Although no exact time has been set for the completion of the switch to countywide Phase 2 technology that will provide exact locations, local agencies have already begun programming their equipment for the service. Blevins said MPD will begin its upgrade next month.
Currently, local agencies are operating under the first phase which displays the cell phone's number and the location of the cell tower that is routing the call, said Velasco.
"Prior to Phase 1 all cell phone calls in Pima County were just automatically directed to the city of Tucson, so this is a great improvement already," Velasco said.
Blevins, the Marana dispatch supervisor agrees.
"Before, if we couldn't get a location from the caller, we were pretty much lost. Now with Phase 1 technology we have that ability and it's great," Blevins said, but noted the phases are steadily increasing the amount of phone calls dispatchers will have to send police officers or firefighters to.
"It does increase the workload, only because we're now Phase 1 compliant and we get the phone number of the cell phone and have the obligation to return the call," Blevins said. "But it's great. If we can save one life, then it's worth it."
How to make a 911 call
The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International has launched its Project LOCATE campaign to educate the public on reporting emergencies using a cell phone. As part of the effort, the Marana Police Department plans to participate in the distribution of cards that include the following advice:
€ Where is the emergency?
Provide the dispatchers with your address, or if on a roadway, use the road name or number, direction of travel, mile markers, intersections or landmarks.
€ What number are you calling from?
Always give the area code of the wireless number. If using a phone without a service contract and the call is disconnected, you must redial 911.
€ What exactly has happened?
Clearly describe what has taken place. Example: What is on fire? Is the person conscious or breathing? Is the person visibly injured? What are the types and number of vehicles involved? If reporting a crime, vehicle and suspect information is always important.
€ Call 911 only when an immediate response by police or fire-rescue medical services is required.
Also know the limitations of your wireless service - if you're moving, your call could be lost.
Communication bond concerns NWFD, Marana
A concern has risen among some public safety agencies in the Northwest that they will end up on the short end of the stick under a sweeping overhaul of emergency communications proposed in Pima County's upcoming bond election.
The county is hoping that voters will approve a $92 million question on the May 18 ballot which provides for a regional public safety communication system that would offer improved radio and data communications to 19 fire districts, nine police agencies and other public safety agencies in the region.
Marana Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat and Jeff Piechura, chief of the Northwest Fire and Rescue District, say they worry that the plan is underfunded and not enough money will be left for equipment upgrades for their agencies after the Tucson Police Department and Pima County Sheriff's Department get their share.
"We're concerned that the county communication bond is underfunded for what they need just in the county and the city (of Tucson.)," Piechura said. "The concern that Northwest Fire has is that once the county and (Tucson) take their cuts to provide for what they need, what's going to be left of the balance of public safety agencies located outside of those two groups?"
Reuwsaat said Marana is hoping to meet with Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry to discuss concerns that the Marana Police Department may not get all that they need from the communications plan.
"We have the same concerns as to whether there will be enough money and the issue of how it will work out to the individual governments. What we've done is asked Huckelberry to line up a meeting with our police department and our (technology department) to talk about the communications bond just so we can have some one-on-one dialogue," Reuwsaat said.
The communications system was originally budgeted at $105 million, but was cut to $92 million earlier this year during the formulation of the $732 million overall bond package.
Huckelberry acknowledges more money would be needed for implementation of the system countywide, but said he's confident state and federal matching funds will help make up for the shortfall.
"We're fairly confident that there will be outside funding to make up the difference from the federal and state governments," Huckelberry said. "We also have a number of checks and balances in this process. For the emergency communications, we're going to have what might be called an executive management team that will consist of the sheriff being the chair and includes the four largest police agencies and three largest fire agencies … Northwest Fire and Marana will be on that executive board and help in making those decisions."
Sharon Bronson, chairwoman of the Pima County Board of Supervisors and a representative for some of the areas served by MPD and NWFD, said she doesn't believe small agencies will lose out if the communications bond is approved.
"Everybody will be treated equally. If there is a shortfall, it would be across the board equally. If we're 10 percent under budget, then everybody's 10 percent under budget. - that means all of the agencies. We won't eliminate different jurisdictions," Bronson said.