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GPS Speeds Emergency Response in N.Y.

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- After crash-landing his helicopter near the Fenner wind farm Jan. 15, pilot Zachariah Bowers told emergency dispatchers that he thought he was in the town of Madison.

But a computer screen in the Madison County 911 center showed in detail that the helicopter was actually in the town of Fenner, about 20 miles west of the pilot's estimated location. Bowers, of Jacksonville, Fla., may have confused the area with a similar wind farm in the town of Madison when he made the call from his cell phone.

"The guys were from out of state," said the dispatcher, Robert Durfee. "He only knew he was in Madison County."

But firefighters and ambulance crews were sent to the exact location immediately after the call. Help arrived quickly, though everyone in the aircraft escaped with minor injuries.

It was one of the more notable calls since the county installed global positioning system technology for tracking wireless calls two years ago. And during that time period, said 911 Communications Director Paul Hartnett, the balance of cell phone calls handled by dispatchers has skyrocketed from about 25 percent of all calls in 2005 to nearly 70 percent these days.

"When we started out, all we could do was ask where they are and if there are any landmarks they could describe," Hartnett said. "It really was a shot in the dark."

The technology is especially important in southern Madison County, home to Cazenovia College, Colgate University and Morrisville State College. Students are likely to have cell phones, but they're less likely to know an exact location if they're involved in an accident or incident away from their campus.

In 2004, for example, 911 workers had to ask a hunting party to get to a main road and flag down emergency crews that were responding to an accidental shooting in nearby woods.

Back then, dispatchers didn't have the ability to pinpoint locations that weren't on a road. Now, with GPS, dispatchers can use detailed overlay maps to pinpoint cell phone signals sent from anywhere in the county.

All wireless phones made within the last few years come with built-in GPS capabilities, Durfee said. To track down the location of older cell phones, the communications system has three towers positioned around the perimeter of the county, allowing emergency crews to track signals within 100 meters.

GPS is working well, but the existing towers that police and fire use for radio communications are still problematic. The outdated towers are scheduled to be replaced during the next two years to the tune of $17 million.

Some of the equipment in the county's three towers is more than 30 years old and transmits obsolete frequencies. Replacement parts, like vacuum tubes, were phased out years ago.


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