By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers
It was dark and raining. I got out of my car to read the street signs after getting lost a couple of miles from an expressway exit outside of Washington, D.C. The muffled sound of the voices behind me, in the shadows, suddenly made me wish I'd looked for gas somewhere else.
"Stay right where you are," one of the voices said.
I'm not brave, but I'm fast. Without a second thought, I slipped my cell phone out of my jacket pocket and flipped open the cover. The buttons came to life with a yellow glow.
That was all it took. The nighttime strangers were gone before I could press "911." The phone had proven itself mightier than the sword.
From that day, I've understood in a very personal way what others had been telling me for years—that cellular phones are not just portable telephones. They're insurance policies. They're lifelines. In some ways, they're benign weapons of self defense.
Except for one thing. When I was accosted on a street corner in a strange part of an unfamiliar city, I had no idea where I was. I hadn't had a chance to read the signs. If my gesture to make a quick call for help had not worked, how would I have told the 911 emergency operator where I was?
That's where technology is coming to the rescue. An invention called FoneFinder gives cellular phones a built-in homing chip that reads out your location when you call 911. FoneFinder adds only about $4 a month to your cellular bill. That's cheap insurance at a dollar a week.
The FoneFinder circuit can be built into new phones or can be fitted into existing Motorola cellular phones. It uses only a small amount of battery power.
FoneFinder works by picking up satellite signals and computing the phone's latitude and longitude. The signals are part of the Global Positioning System. GPS have been sold as expensive options in cars and trucks for years, and are used by the military to locate downed pilots.
When a FoneFinder-equipped phone calls 911, a computerized voice in the phone reads out the exact location of the caller. At the other end of the line, 911 operators can enter the longitude and latitude into a computer program and quickly see the caller's location on a map.
The system works both locally, at the 911 call center, and across the Internet, so calls received far from the scene of trouble can be traced quickly.
FoneFinder was developed by Tendler Cellular, which developed a similar system for marine radios. The Coast Guard already uses the marine system to locate ships and boats in distress.