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Emergency calls: landline or cell phone?

December 30, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
Nearly a quarter of all Americans are giving up landlines and using cell phones only. But how reliable are cell phones in an emergency? The results of a recent survey are encouraging.When Eyewitness News teamed up with Consumer Reports, they surveyed more than 2,000 of their readers and found that using your cell phone is safer than it used to be, but for some, a landline still makes sense.

Your location is the first piece of information emergency dispatchers need to know to get help quickly to people like Alexa, age 12.

When a fire broke out in her home, Alexa grabbed her dog and her cell phone, ran outside and got through right away to 911. Fortunately, Alexa was able to give her address quickly and accurately.

But if the caller can't give the address, the dispatchers have to rely exclusively on technology to locate the phone. And which kind of phone, cell or landline, is easier to locate?

"More effective is definitely calling from a landline because we get all the information on a screen and we have an exact location," said Jeanette Cepin, an emergency dispatcher.

Landlines and Internet phone services called VoIP are almost always located right away on call center screens. But pinpointing cell phones is more difficult.

"Emergency personnel locate a cell phone through its internal GPS or through cell tower signals. That's less precise than with a landline and could cost precious time," said Paul Reynolds, Consumer Reports.

Another issue when using a cell phone in an emergency is a weak signal, which can also cost you time.

"Our survey found a slightly higher percentage of cell-phone users had trouble getting through to 911 on the first try," said Reynolds. "But nearly all were able to get through with a little more effort."

So the Consumer Reports survey shows cell phones are mostly reliable. Nevertheless, consider keeping your landline if you don't get good cell-phone reception at home or you live in a remote or rural area where service can be spotty. Also, a landline is better if you're concerned the caller may not be able to give an exact address in an emergency.

It's interesting to note that 60 percent of the 240 million calls made to 911 in the U.S. come from cell phones. And the Consumer Reports survey shows, not surprisingly, that a big reason is people are calling from a car to report a road emergency.