Rescuers use GPS to find crash victim’s cell phone

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Mike DuPre'
Friday, January 18, 2008
— Tami Wescott didn’t know where she was.

Neither did her frantic family.

But Gina Shippee—a calm, veteran dispatcher at the Rock County Communication Center—knew the county’s 911 system had the right technology to locate Tami if she had a newer cell phone.

Tami, a 38-year-old Janesville resident, had suffered a diabetic reaction on her way to work at Lab Safety Supply on Wright Road in the predawn dark Saturday.

She had left her boyfriend’s house in Beloit at 4:20 a.m. to be at Lab Safety on Janesville’s east side for the 5 a.m. start to her shift.

She remembers stopping at a red light at Wright Road and East Racine Street but not another thing until she was talking on her cell phone as she sat in her wrecked car.

“I remember talking to my sister (Traci). I don’t know if she called me or I called her. My sister told me I was supposed to call 911,” Tami said.

Traci had called her because of a message relayed from Shippee through their mother, Jean.

Within seconds of getting Tami’s call, Shippee was able to determine her exact location because of the 911 system’s global positioning capability. About 10 minutes later, officers and paramedics arrived at the dead end of Wright Road, where Tami’s sport-utility vehicle had run fairly far off the road and hit a tree.

Tami was found about 6:20 a.m., about an hour and a half after she would have arrived at work.

Tami had driven about 4 miles from the last spot she recalled. She suffered bruised ribs but no life-threatening injuries. She doesn’t think her blood-sugar level was low enough to be life-threatening.

But her family was frantic because she had not arrived at work on time.

Jean works the same shift as Tami. When her daughter didn’t show up on time, Jean called her husband, Tom, and he and Traci started to drive around, searching for Tami.

Jean left work to join the hunt. She called 911. Shippee answered.

“When I spoke to her mother, they had been looking for her for quite some time,” Shippee said. “She felt it was a problem with her diabetes.”

Shippee told Jean the 911 system could find Tami through GPS—the satellite-based global positioning system—but only if Tami had a newer cell phone and used it to call 911.

The 911 GPS doesn’t work if the dispatcher calls the cell phone.

Traci wound up relaying the word to Tami.

“I don’t even know how long I was on the phone,” she said. “I get that way when I’m low (on blood sugar). It’s almost like being drunk.”

On a recording of Tami’s conversation with Shippee, the dispatcher can be heard repeatedly asking the driver how she’s doing and if she sees emergency lights in the area.

Shippee reassured Tami and advised her to honk her horn.

“She seemed pretty calm,” Tami said of the dispatcher. “She knew what she was doing. I remember honking the horn. I remember the paramedics.

“I want to thank her, the paramedics, the police. I thank everybody.”

A 25-year dispatcher, Shippee said, “I’ve been doing this so long, nothing excites me now. … It’s kind of different now. With this technology, we can actually find people now, so it helps a lot.”

Shippee credited her colleagues: “It wasn’t just me that handled this call. It was a group event for us on third shift. I couldn’t have done it without the rest of them.”

Dispatchers explain how they did it

Kathy Sukus, operations manager for the Rock County Communication Center, described how the county 911 system uses global positioning technology to locate callers:

-- The caller must be using a newer model cell phone. Older phones don’t have a GPS chip for satellites to locate.

The call must originate from the cell phone. GPS doesn’t work if a 911 dispatcher calls the cell phone.

The county’s system was upgraded with GPS in late 2005 to find a newer phone’s location.

-- Phase 1 locates the cell tower closest to the caller. Sometimes, location goes automatically to Phase 2. Sometimes, dispatchers—now called telecommunicators—have to press a button to activate Phase 2.

-- Phase 2 provides the longitude and latitude of the phone. The 911 system automatically transfers the geographic information to a computer mapping system that finds the longitude and latitude on a local map.

The process takes a few seconds.

“We use it every day to verify addresses,” Sukus said. “And we’ve had accidents where people are disoriented. We also use it for (finding) prank callers.

“It’s always been accurate.”

Last updated: 1:48 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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