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Cutting the cord? Officials say think twice before abandoning landlines

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Unplugging one’s landline telephone to shave expenses is a tempting proposition in today’s cellphone-saturated society, but emergency management officials from the north country say it’s not necessarily a safe one.

Despite advanced cellphone technology, they say dead spots and areas with spotty cellphone reception that still exist in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties pose a risk for 911 callers who have jettisoned landlines at their homes. A poor signal transmitted to a cellphone tower, for example, could mean an emergency caller isn’t heard by a dispatcher; GPS receiver chips used to pinpoint the caller’s location with mapping coordinates may also be impaired by the poor signal, leaving dispatchers with limited information.

Hard-wired telephones, by contrast, provide dispatchers immediately with home addresses when 911 calls are made; that information is collected and stored by phone companies when they install services.

In the best-case scenario, mobile emergency calls are made with smartphones that use the latest GPS technology to transmit information, officials said. Calls are made in areas with excellent reception, which allow the dispatcher to quickly glean important facts from the caller. Older cellphones without Internet access, however, don’t have GPS technology needed for dispatchers to acquire an exact location on a map; dispatchers only receive the phone number, the address of the cell tower and the broad direction from which the call originated.

Jefferson County has made major strides by implementing advanced emergency-response technology at its dispatch center, but mobile emergency calls are far from foolproof, said Joseph D. Plummer, county fire and emergency management director.

“As the wireless systems have developed, people are saving money by having their landlines turned off and going with cellphones, because they always have them,” Mr. Plummer said. “We deal with problems on a daily basis, and one of the reasons is the technology isn’t as precise as everyone wants it to be. Some people are using technology that doesn’t use GPS coordinates. Data has to be triangulated (from cell towers), and we receive a confidence factor that tells” the accuracy of mapping results. “And technology changes all the time, so even a phone that’s two years old may not be as accurate as a new one.”

Based at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building, the center began taking 911 calls directly from mobile phones in 2008 thanks to a $1.9 million state grant to upgrade equipment. Before that, state police answered 911 calls first, then transferred them to county dispatch if they weren’t a matter for state police. The county’s computer-aided dispatch system was upgraded in 2010, making dispatch information accessible to the county sheriff’s road patrol.

Verizon and AT&T have built an increasing number of cell towers in rural areas in recent years, but there are still communities in Jefferson County with poor reception, Mr. Plummer said. As such, homeowners who are considering getting rid of landlines should review their cellphone reception.

Cellphone reception “is something that you should take into account, because you’re going to have a lot better results with getting this GPS data in a (densely populated) area than compared to really rural areas,” Mr. Plummer said. “If you look at your cellphone and have one bar, then it’s going to be difficult. The only fail-safe thing is to keep your landline, because addresses come from databases used by phone companies. Landline phones are the most accurate.”

St. Lawrence County also has its fair share of difficulties with mobile emergency calls, said James R. Chestnut, county supervisor of dispatch operations. Areas in the southeast part of the county tend to have poor cellphone reception, he said, because they mainly border the Adirondack Forest where cell towers are limited.

“Unfortunately there are a lot of places, especially along hilly areas, with poor cellphone reception,” he said. “Dispatchers will sometimes say they heard someone who kept breaking up and they couldn’t get the GPS location.”

When cellphone reception is excellent, though, dispatchers at the St. Lawrence County Public Safety Building in Canton will pinpoint the location of mobile callers within 15 seconds, Mr. Chestnut said. The most accurate mapping results usually are generated by those who call using smartphones with strong signals to cell towers.

Mobile phones are useful for 911 calls made at the scene of car accidents or on trips away from home, but landlines have a clear advantage for reporting home emergencies, Mr. Chestnut said. He agreed that residents should carefully weigh the pros and cons of abandoning landlines. Cost savings and lifestyle preferences may play a role in that decision, but people should always review the strength of their cellphone reception as a precaution.

“If people look at their cellphones and have a poor signal wherever they are, they may not want to think about getting rid of a landline,” he said. “Can you make a call from your living room, or do you have to go out into your backyard?”

Mapping technology dating back to 1994 is now used by dispatchers, Mr. Chestnut said, but a new computer-aided dispatch system will replace it in April.

“Right now, we’re probably able to get as close as 50 feet to locations,” he said. “But the new map will be much more accurate and capable of pinning locations within a few feet.”

About 25 percent of people in Lewis County don’t have cellphone service, according to James M. Martin, county emergency services director. About 10 to 15 percent of calls to the center at the Lewis County Sheriff’s Department in Lowville are made from mobile phones. Cell towers are scarce in the eastern half of the county, part of which is within the Adirondack park, and in the Tug Hill region.

Reception problems are commonplace among mobile callers who make 911 calls, Mr. Martin said.

“Cellphones are problematic, because you don’t always get a good signal in terms of where you are,” he said. “The message coming across the dispatch center could be garbled, and they’re not exactly sure where the call is coming from. It depends on the signal strength coming in.”

People should “check out areas where they’re thinking about picking landlines out,” Mr. Martin said. “Try cellphones and do a test call to the sheriff’s office when it’s not busy to see how well it works.”

In December, the Lewis County Board of Legislators approved an $894,959 contract for Spillman Technologies Inc. to install a computer-aided dispatch system similar to the one used by Jefferson County. It’s expected to be implemented by early 2015, Mr. Martin said.

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