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The United States didn't get serious about updating its 911 phone system until a series of preventable deaths relating to emergency calls from cellphones began to occur. Now experts fear Canada may be at risk of making the same mistake.

Brian Fontes, a former adviser to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, said Canadian regulators and the telecom industry need to learn from the U.S. experience and update emergency technology before tragedy strikes again.

His comments came just days after an 18-year-old man was found dead in a wooded area near Williams Lake, B.C.

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Matt Armstrong called 911 from his cellphone after losing his way in dark woods on his way home from a party. But police could not determine his location. His body was discovered on New Year's Day.

It is the latest in a string of fatal or near-fatal incidents over the past year in which emergency dispatchers have been unable to locate cellphone callers to 911.

Although more than half of all 911 calls come from cellphones, Canada lacks the technology to determine where these calls originate in an emergency.

Mr. Fontes, head of the National Emergency Number Association in Arlington, Va., said it was cases similar to Mr. Armstrong's death that pushed U.S. regulators to begin talking about upgrading their 911 infrastructure to locate cellular calls.

"I remember a couple that drove off the road in a blizzard in a rural area of Iowa. They passed away because they couldn't be located," he said. "That's what brought it to the forefront here."

After Mr. Armstrong's death, Mr. Fontes said Canada should be more pro-active.

However, Canada's wireless industry, the federal telecom regulator and emergency dispatchers are battling over who should pay to upgrade the system. Federal documents say modernizing Canada's outmoded 911 dispatches to locate cellphone calls when a caller is lost or can't speak would cost about $50-million.

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The wireless carriers want Ottawa to pay that tab, while the dispatchers say the cellphone companies should be forced to use some of the $157-million they collect each year on monthly 911 fees. Industry Canada documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show the government has been advised that the wireless companies keep some of this money as "surplus" revenue.

"If I were to ever make a recommendation to anyone, to the extent that there is a fee imposed to recover the cost for 911 location, I would require that those funds cannot be raided, that they have to go to their designated purpose," Mr. Fontes said, noting that the United States has had its own problems with misdirected 911 fees.

"In the U.S., we have had several states raid those fees to pay for non-911 expenses."

The United States is now seen to have some of the most advanced 911 technology, while parts of Europe and India have introduced cellphone-location capabilities. Canada is considered to be lagging.

Ottawa has avoided imposing a deadline on the phone companies, choosing instead to debate the matter further.

This has resulted in situations like the prolonged search for a man in rural Saskatchewan last winter. Dispatchers kept the man on the line for three hours while they tried to figure out his location after he drove off the road in a snowstorm. Also last year, a man in Alberta was found dead in a field near the town of Brooks two days after he called 911. He had been beaten by several men, but RCMP could not figure out where he was calling from.

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"Don't let it get to that point," Mr. Fontes said. "I would certainly encourage the wireless industry, the public safety industry and government to work together."

The U.S. government faced criticism when it introduced the wireless-location technology in 2005 over fears that all cellphone calls could be tracked. However, Mr. Fontes said that capability does not exist.

"You have to make the 911 call to trigger it," he said. "There is always a subset of the population that is skeptical or paranoid. ... But they probably don't realize that their cellphone, even when they are not talking, registers at different cell sites as they move from one location to the next."

***

CELLPHONE TECHNOLOGY

- Person in need of help calls 911 using his or her cell phone

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- Signal triangulated using satellites or cell towers depending on phone's technology

- Caller's number, audio signal and latitude and longitude co-ordinates sent to cell tower

- Carrier's mobile switching centre receives the call

- Call forwarded to dedicated 911 switchboard

- Call received by 911 operator nearest the caller and appropriate action taken

NINIAN CARTER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL // SOURCE: HOWSTUFFWORKS.COM

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