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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 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.

“The technology isn’t as precise as everyone wants it to be,” he said. “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.”

Verizon and AT&T have built an increasing number of cell towers in rural areas in recent years, but there are still communities with poor reception.

St. Lawrence County 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.”

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