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County takes steps to help locate cell phone users

A recent winter accident in a sparsely traveled part of the county emphasizes the need for a system to instantly track cellular phone callers, says the director of St. Croix County's Emergency Communications Center.

On Dec. 4 a man called the Communications Center to report that his daughter, on her way from Cylon to her home north of Somerset, had been injured in an accident. The woman used her cell phone to call her father.

The man, who thought his daughter had head injuries, said she seemed disoriented and couldn't tell him where she was.

With the temperature at 8 degrees, a squad car set out for the approximate area of the crash, sounding intermittent blasts on its siren while dispatchers kept the woman on the phone.

It took 52 minutes for rescue workers to reach the woman, who had severe injuries to her face and knee, said Emergency Communications Director Gary Kollman.

"Had we had cellular E911, we could have gotten her location immediately," he said.

Kollman met with the Finance Committee last week and the full County Board this week to ask them to apply for state money to help pay for wireless 911. The committee endorsed the application Thursday, and the County Board approved it Tuesday.

It will cost an estimated $370,000 to buy and install equipment and software for the system, said Kollman. He estimated the state grant would cover about $248,000 of the cost, while the county would have to pick up about $124,000.

Counties have until April 1 to submit an application for grant money.

Wisconsin Act 48, adopted in 2003, creates a three-year grant program administered by the Public Service Commission to reimburse local governments and wireless companies for some costs of providing enhanced wireless 911 services. Grant money will be raised through a monthly cell phone surcharge that went into effect in December. Grant payments to counties would be made quarterly starting May 2006.

The St. Croix County center has enhanced 911, which automatically provides the telephone number and street address of a caller. But that system doesn't work for mobile phone calls.

The Communications Center's phone equipment, which is 12 years old, can't display a caller's area code and 911 cell phone calls are directed to three seven-digit business lines, said Kollman. He said the new equipment would have 20-digit display capability, an integrated mapping system and three designated 911 phone circuits.

Under Phase 1, dispatchers will receive the 10-digit numbers for both the cell phone caller and the nearest cellular tower. In Phase 2, dispatchers will receive that information plus the caller's location on a map.

The county will have to front all the money and wait three years to get the final grant payment, said Kollman.

He said the County Board has the option of doing nothing or it could apply for the grant and decide later if it wants to go ahead with the project.

"They (the state) can't make us do it, but I'm inclined to think our citizens will want us to do it," responded County Board Chairman Buck Malick.

This is something the county should do regardless of the state's participation, agreed Finance Committee Chairman Ralph Swenson, noting that widespread use of cell phones should make that a priority.