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Do you keep an old 3G phone in your car for emergencies? It may not work much longer

Police departments provide emergency phones

Police departments across the nation hand out deactivated cell phones for emergency use to call 911.
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Police departments across the nation hand out deactivated cell phones for emergency use to call 911.

There are no phones at the Old Fort Boise Replica and Museum in a remote corner of Southwest Idaho.

Jim Jefferies, who manages the site in rural Parma, keeps an old, deactivated cell phone for emergency use. He obtained it from the Parma Police Department two years ago under a national program that gives people old phones that can call 911. Under federal law, cell phones sold in the United States must be able to reach 911 whether the phone is activated or not.

Jefferies is unsure whether his emergency phone will work by the end of this year, when Verizon, the nation’s largest cell phone service provider, shuts down its old 3G network across the U.S.

“I don’t even know what kind of cell phone it is,” he said in a phone interview.

It turns out that doesn’t matter. Under Federal Communications Commission rules, a cell phone must have the ability to reach 911 regardless of the network it was originally on. But the phone still needs a cell tower within range.

And that tower still needs to carry 3G signals for a 3G phone to work, no matter the carrier.

That’s where people like Jefferies could be in for a shock. If someone is far from home and facing a health or safety emergency, counting on a phone stored in the glove compartment to reach 911, the phone soon won’t be able to reach 911 through the nation’s largest cell-phone service provider. The other major carriers are expected to follow suit.

3G, or third-generation, service is going the way of the video-cassette recorder. Verizon plans to turn off its 3G system by December. The three other major carriers are expected to keep their 3G systems operational for another few years.

AT&T says it will continue offering 3G service until February 2022. T-Mobile and Sprint have not announced plans, but a shutdown is expected in 2021 or 2022, according to DIGI, an industry blog.

“Once our 3G CDMA network is shut down, folks who have a 3G device will not be able to use it on our network any longer,” Verizon spokeswoman Heidi Flato said by phone. “You’ll have to have a 4G LTE-capable device.”

Every year, an estimated 240 million 911 calls are placed in the United States, according to the National Emergency Number Association. (Up to 50 percent are not for actual emergencies, often the result of inadvertent pocket dialing on cell phones, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly estimated in 2014.)

It’s unclear how many people keep deactivated cell phones on hand for emergency use or how often they’re used. Those phones aren’t tracked, said spokesman Chris Nussman of the National Emergency Number Association.

The 911 center in Boise, which serves Ada County, does not track emergency calls placed by deactivated cell phones, either. But sheriff’s spokesman Patrick Orr estimates that 90 percent or more of the 911 calls that come in on them are from inadvertent pocket calls or children playing.

“The vast majority of those calls, you can’t hear anything other than background noise,” Orr said.

On New Year’s Day, a child playing with a deactivated cell phone in Riverton, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, made more than 30 911 calls in 30 minutes before police located the child.

“It’s a waste of our time and resources to go out and try and track these numbers down,” South Jordan police Sgt. Sam Winkler told Salt Lake City television station KUTV.

And in Michigan, a 5-year-old boy called 911 with a deactivated cell phone last month and asked a dispatcher if she could bring him a meal from McDonald’s.

But some calls are genuine emergencies.

In January 2018, the 17-year-old daughter of David and Louise Turpin escaped through a window at the family’s home in Perris, California, and used a deactivated phone to alert police of the prolonged abuse of her and 11 of her siblings. The girl plotted her escape for two years. The Turpins were each sentenced last month to 25 years to life.

Boise police hand out two or three deactivated cell phones per month to people who don’t otherwise have a way to contact police in an emergency, said Ed Fritz, the department’s crime prevention supervisor. Many of the people are elderly or cannot afford cell service and lack a landline.

Boise police also provide the phones to crime victims, whose phones may have been broken as the crimes were committed.

Many police departments accept donations of deactivated cell phones. Boise and other cities send them to a Florida-based nonprofit, 911 Cell Phone Bank, which wipes any data off the phones, refurbishes them if needed, and gives back an equal number to the department.

Since 2004, the company has distributed more than 100,000 emergency cell phones through more than 1,500 other police agencies and agencies that assist crime victims.

The 3G network was introduced in 1998. The faster 4G network was introduced 10 years later, but Apple kept selling 3G-only iPhones until the iPhone5 came out in 2012. Now, even faster 5G service is rolling out gradually across the country, though the 4G system won’t become obsolete anytime soon.

If you’re unsure whether your emergency phone is a 3G model, you can check your phone’s IMEI serial number. (IMEI stands for International Mobile Equipment Identity.) You may find it under the phone’s “About” tab. Or you can press *#06# on your phone’s keypad to bring up the IMEI,.

Enter the IMEI number at https://www.imei.info and you will see details on the phone and the network it is set up for. The 3G network uses frequencies at 900Mhz or 2100Mhz.

But you may decide it’s time to trade up to an emergency phone using the 4G network. Ask a friend or family member if she has an unused phone, such as an iPhone 5 or later, that she is willing to part with. Or check out phone-service plans that offer limited service for as little as $5 per month.

If you keep a phone for emergency use and it’s turned off, check the battery at least every six months to see if it needs charging.

And consider keeping the phone at home but taking it whenever you leave the house. It’s probably not a good idea to store it in your car’s glove box, since extreme heat or cold are not good for a phone.

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Reporter John Sowell has worked for the Statesman since 2013. He covers business and growth issues. He grew up in Emmett and graduated from the University of Oregon.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.
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