Last updated: January 25. 2014 12:16AM - 2748 Views
By Geri Anne Kaikowski gkaikowski@civitasmedia.com

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Luzerne County residents can register their landlines and cell phones on Smart911.com, a supplemental service that assists the county 911 system in providing emergency assistance.

Smart911 is a free service that allows citizens across the United States to create a safety profile for their household that includes any information they want 911 to have in the event of an emergency. Then, when anyone in that household dials 911 from a phone associated with their safety profile, their profile is immediately displayed to the 911 call taker, providing additional information that can be used to facilitate immediate response to the proper location.

A safety profile is a set of information about an individual or a household that is contained within one account on Smart911.com. Information can include details about all members of the household, all phone numbers (mobile, landline) and all addresses including home, work and even vacation homes. Users can add details about medical conditions, medications, vehicles, pets and emergency contacts. You can even download photographs that may be helpful.

With Smart911, anytime you make an emergency call from a phone registered with your safety profile, the 911 system recognizes your phone number and automatically displays your profile on the screen of the call taker who receives your call.

If you call Deb Payson, you might have to wait several rings for her to get to the phone. That’s because Payson still uses a landline.

She owns a cell phone but not a trendy and expensive iPhone or other smartphone. Her cell is a less costly one with prepaid minutes and no contract, which she keeps in her car for emergencies only.

“I like the security of knowing that I don’t have to worry about minutes,” said Payson, who resides in the Heights section of Wilkes-Barre. “I’ve never not had a landline.”

Some may call her old-fashioned; others may call her frugal. But for a variety of reasons, Payson isn’t ready to cut the cord yet on her landline.

She may be in the minority.

About one-third of U.S. households have ditched landlines, prompted by younger Americans relying on their cell phones, the latest Census Bureau data showed. Just under 71 percent of households nationally had landlines in 2011, down from a little more than 96 percent five years ago, according to the census. Cell-phone ownership reached 89 percent, up from about 36 percent in 1998, the first year the survey asked about the devices.

Cost is a big factor in deciding which phone to ditch. Some dislike paying for a set amount of minutes, while others think it is a waste of money to own both a home and cell phone when the cell is mobile and you use it more.

Facebook speaks out

We posed the question to Times Leader followers on Facebook and got a chorus of folks opposed to landlines:

“I think it’s a waste of money for a landline if you have a cell,” Sherry Leonard said.

“No landlines,” Nikki Brown agreed. “Wouldn’t waste the money.”

“No more landline,” said Maryjane Shinko. “Why have another payment?”

But better reception is often cited as a reason to keep a landline.

“It is always nice to have a phone that you can depend on when there is a disaster,” said Michele Havrilchak of Noxen. “Cell phones never work when you actually need a phone.”

She experienced difficulty trying to phone the Wyoming Valley from her cell area several summers ago during an earthquake on the East Coast.

“We lack good cell-phone connections in Noxen with all those mountains surrounding the town like a wall,” said Lorraine Brelsford, who notes that she pays only $29 a month for phone service. “We need a landline.”

In case of emergency

But what many mobile-phone owners may not realize is that the switch to cell phones also could make a difference on emergency response time should you use one to call 911.

Last year, in Luzerne County, 155,108 calls were made to 911 using a wireless phone compared with 64,080 calls from landlines, said Fred Rosencrans, data and tech support manager for the county’s 911 system. That’s about 70.7 percent wireless calls vs. 29.3 percent landline calls.

Despite the latest technology, he said, emergency calls made to the center with a cell phone present challenges to the dispatcher. When a person calls 911 from a landline, his address and location come onto the screen allowing the operator to dispatch an ambulance or police officer immediately after address verification.

“The technology is not foolproof when it comes to cell calls,” Rosencrans said. “A lot of people have the misconception that we know where you are right down to the distance of feet. But it depends on the type and age of the phone and the service provider.”

The Federal Communications Commission standard, he explains, allows carriers a 900-foot accuracy in distance. “That’s a big area to cover,” he said. “With some calls, like a medical emergency or a domestic abuse, the person may just be able to dial 911 and then can’t answer our dispatcher’s questions. And if someone is calling from the woods, it can take crucial minutes to try to find exactly where that person is.”

Some of the latest cell providers are now installing a GPS chip in their phones that can be very accurate, Rosencrans said. “I have one of those, and I stood on my back porch and called 911 to test it,” he said. “The operator knew my address and then told me, ‘You’re standing on your back porch.’ “

The switch to cell phones is also hurting the county’s 911 system when it comes to funding. “We lost $100,000 in funds last year,” Rosencrans said. “We get reimbursed $1.25 per landline and only $1 for cellphone or other systems. The funding hasn’t kept up with technology. These guidelines were made in 1996 when no one knew exactly just how much impact cell phones would have.”

The personal touch

Landline-lovers also have a hang-up about what they feel is impersonal use of the cell phone.

“I feel disconnected with a cell phone,” Payson, the landline loyalist from the Heights, said. “It’s frustrating to see people on cell phones walking down the street distracted from their surroundings. They aren’t aware of safety issues. I have no problem disconnecting and enjoying face-to-face interaction.”

Also offering their opinions on Facebook were two more landline supporters:

Brian Quick thinks cells are a distraction and should be used only for emergencies. “People can’t shop, drive or do anything without having a cell phone stuck to their ear,” he said. “I’d like to know how people survived years ago when cell phones weren’t available like today.”

But Elizabeth Eiler Reichart has a different reason for keeping her home phone: “Still use one only because older relatives refuse to call cell phones,” she said.

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