Turning cellphones into lifelines http://www.usatoday.com/tech/product...s-safety_x.htm
Cellular phone networks have become key tools used by search and rescue
teams as they try to locate people who've become lost in remote areas.
As has been reported in recent days, CNET Reviews editor James Kim and his
family disappeared in Oregon during a Thanksgiving road trip. James' wife,
Kati, and their two children, Penelope and Sabine, were found safe Monday
afternoon. Searchers are still looking for James Kim, who left his family on
Saturday in search of help.
Authorities conducting the search said at a news conference Monday that a
signal sent from the Kims' mobile phone to a tower in the region was key to
locating the family.
The search for the Kim family is the latest example of how important
cellphone technology has become as a public safety tool.
While other technologies such as global positioning system, or GPS
navigation, may help people find their way out of trouble, it does little to
help when people are stranded on the side of the road like the Kims were.
Tracking devices that send beacons to rescuers could be helpful, but they
are used mostly by wilderness backpackers and backcountry skiers. Few people
carry them on road trips. And even though satellite tracking technology
exists, even fewer people are likely to consent to having their whereabouts
tracked on a daily basis in the off chance that they might get lost on a
At the end of the day, the technology that has proved the most valuable for
locating lost or missing people has been cellular phones.
"Navigation tools may help someone if they need to understand where they are
to get to safety," said Kiyoshi Hamai, director of sales and product
management with Mio Technology, a company that sells portable navigation
devices using GPS technology. "But in order for someone to find you, you
really need a device, like a cellphone, that can provide two-way
Even General Motors' OnStar service, which provides GPS navigation and
tracks cars when they are stolen, relies on a cellular network to
communicate with the GPS receiver in the car.
"We don't communicate with our in-vehicle OnStar device via satellite," said
Steve Davis, Service Line Manager for the OnStar Personal Communications
service. "We connect to the device through a cellular phone connection. And
if we can't connect to it through the cellular network, then we can't
retrieve the GPS location information stored in the device."
Cellphones are becoming important safety tools for a couple of reasons. For
one, few of the nearly 230 million Americans who subscribe to a mobile phone
service leave home without their cellphone. And secondly, cellular networks
were designed so that devices are constantly communicating with the nearest
cellular transmission towers to update their location so that calls can be
Consumers also seem to believe that cellphones are important for their
safety. According to a recent Consumer Reports survey, about 29% of people
buying cellphones in the last year did so for security reasons.
As handset and cellular network technology improves, it will become an even
more important tool, experts say. Federal Communications Commission
regulations requiring cellphone operators to provide 911 operators with the
approximate location of people calling for help will also improve the
ability to pinpoint location. New commercial services that allow people to
track their children or their friends could also prove helpful in getting
people the help they need fast.
So how does it all work? Mobile devices are in constant communication with
the network, constantly letting cell towers know of their location. Mobile
operators don't typically store this information. So authorities are usually
able to get information based only on the most recent "ping," or device
communication, with a cell tower.
But when someone is missing, even this small bit of information can prove
useful in determining the approximate location of a device. If the mobile
subscriber is still within cellphone range, authorities can track the
general movement by following the towers the phone has contacted or pinged.
And if the cellphone goes out of range or runs out of battery power, the
mobile operator will have a record of the last ping before the cellphone
either lost its signal or lost power.
This is how authorities were able to home in on the general area where the
Kim family was found, according to a sheriff's department spokesman during a
press conference on Monday. A cellphone tower operated by Edge Wireless, the
local cellular provider in the region, received a signal from one of the
family's cellphones at about 1:30 a.m. November 26 near Glendale, Ore.
Authorities said the cellphone signal indicated only that they had been
within a 26-mile radius of Glendale, where the tower is located. But people
at Edge Wireless took this information and mapped the area, providing an
approximate location of the Kims' vehicle, the sheriff's department
spokesman said. And using this information, authorities sent out rescue
teams, which eventually located Kati Kim and her children.
The E911 FCC regulations are likely to help rescuers find lost victims even
more quickly, even if people are unable to reach a 911 operator for help.
Phones sold today by Alltel, Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel have GPS
technology embedded in them to fulfill the E911 government mandate. The GPS
chips allow authorities to send signals or pings directly to these handsets
to find an approximate location of the phone.
Some cellphone operators, such as Disney Mobile, Boost Wireless and Helio,
are using GPS-enabled phones to provide tracking services. Disney Mobile
targets parents wanting to keep tabs on their small children, while Boost
and Helio are marketing their services to appeal to young people who are
looking to keep in touch with their friends.
Services that allow people to be tracked either through the cellular phone
network or by satellite introduce some obvious privacy concerns. But Joe
Farren, director of public affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, a
trade organization representing mobile operators, said that is why people
must opt-in to services that allow tracking.
Still, cellphones have their limitations. For example, cellphone battery
life varies greatly. Some last for several days while others may lose power
after only a few hours. And even though cellular network coverage has
improved tremendously over the past several years, it is still not
ubiquitous in the United States. Even some urban areas have dead zones,
particularly in buildings or underground. Rural and remote areas suffer most
from lack of coverage. And these areas also happen to be places where people
are most often stranded or lost.
With all that said, Farren believes that cellphones will continue to play an
important role in providing safety and security for people.
"Wireless phones are an incredible safety tool," he said. "They are the most
valuable tool invented for some time. They save scores of lives. And they
will continue to get better."
"Your best, last and only line of defense-a cohort of Roman Heavy Infantry"