Feature Article

April 29, 2014

Wireless Carriers Have to Protect Customers with Better 9-1-1 Technology

When you call 9-1-1 from your house using a landline phone or even VoIP phone service, the dispatcher knows your location. Knowing the exact location of the caller is an extremely important aspect of the 9-1-1 emergency system because there are many scenarios in which the caller is not able to communicate his or her location. As consumers continue to migrate away from land line phones and use wireless phones as their only mode of communication in their home, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to accurately locate 9-1-1 calls made indoors.

Locating indoor callers from a wireless device has become an important issue for managers and dispatchers in emergency operations, and the recent survey of the Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), which handle 9-1-1 calls in all 50 states, found most dispatchers have a hard time locating indoor wireless callers using the location information provided by wireless carriers.

This is an important issue because the majority of 9-1-1 calls now come from wireless phones, accounting for 76 percent of all emergency calls. The results of the survey, as well as several hundred personal stories of tragic consequences related to not being able to find wireless emergency callers was being submitted to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The information was given to the FCC so it can consider changing a rule requiring wireless carriers to provide accurate location for wireless callers within two years.

Considering the loss of life as well as the other heart wrenching stories the survey provided, it makes you wonder why it has to take two years to implement a technology that is readily available.

According to Find Me 911, a coalition of consumers and emergency service personnel, “the FCC added a provision that explicitly limited the accuracy testing (and thus certification) obligations of the carriers to “outdoor measurements only.” As a result, all of the major carriers have migrated to a GPS based location system that has proven to be unreliable and ineffective indoors, in some cases migrating away from technology that was proven to be effective indoors.”

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Association of Fire Chiefs, the National Sheriffs’ Association and the National EMS Leadership Conference as well as companies that currently have the technology to make this possible have written letters urging the FCC to move forward.  Polaris, one of the companies that wrote the letter, said “there are no technological or monetary barriers” to an indoor standard.

Key data points the survey pointed out are:

  • 64 percent of wireless 9-1-1 calls are made from inside buildings;
  • 97 percent of 9-1-1 call centers have received a wireless 9-1-1 call within the last year from a caller who could not tell the dispatcher his or her location;
  • 82 percent of 9-1-1 personnel do not have a great deal of confidence in the location data provided to their PSAPs by the wireless carriers;
  • 54 percent said that the latitude and longitude (i.e. Phase II) data provided by carriers that is supposed to show a caller's location is "regularly" inaccurate;
  • 99 percent said the adoption of that rule was "critically" or "very" important for public safety in their communities; and
  • 94 percent opposed waiting an additional three years to implement the rule, as some carriers have proposed.

“These results are truly staggering. The men and women on the front lines of our 9-1-1 system overwhelmingly say that they need accurate indoor location information to do their jobs and save lives, yet they are not getting it today. This survey, and the powerful personal stories of 9-1-1 employees from around the country, removes any doubt about the life-and-death urgency of the FCC's rulemaking on this issue,” said Jamie Barnett, former Chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau and Director of the Find Me 911 Coalition,

These were some of the examples given by 9-1-1 dispatchers in which accurately locating the caller would have saved their life or helped in their rescue:

Received a 911 from a cell phone with an open line. It was a female that sounded as if she had her mouth gagged. She was getting beat [and] even her dog was being hurt. The lat/long came to an abandoned building in St Louis City... Could not pinpoint her location, and her phone died. She was never found; Missouri 9-1-1 employee.

We had a caller call in [and] all we could hear was what sounded like a struggle to breathe and loud music in the background. He called from his cell phone, however there was no Phase II, only Phase I where it shows only a triangle of area that he could be calling from... The subject was eventually found and he had been murdered by having his throat cut; California 9-1-1 employee.

The subject could not talk because she was vomiting. The subject called 911 twice, and the 911 operator attempted to call her back several times. The subject could never give her address, and the phone was only hitting on a tower... By the time officer arrived on scene, the subject was deceased. She had been vomiting blood for some time. She was choking on her blood at the time of the call, which was the reason for her inability to communicate her address; Colorado 9-1-1 employee.

[We received a] sexual assault call from a chemically impaired young adult who was not able to give location and the wireless location given was too broad. The actual address of the incident was not discovered until the victim went to the police station in person the next afternoon to report the incident; Texas 9-1-1 employee.

Female ACTIVELY being assaulted while her assailant laughed in the background. We were never able to locate her; North Carolina 9-1-1 employee.

 [We had a] kidnapping situation where a traumatized female woke up after being sexually assaulted, [She] was not from the community and had no idea where she was. Lat/long showed an apt complex with multiple buildings and multiple apts. It took 20 to 25 minutes to get an accurate position, and officers still had to knock door-to-door for several minutes to get the correct apt; New Hampshire 9-1-1 employee.

Considering wireless carriers are always touting the customer service they provide, why doesn’t that service extend to protecting them when they call 9-1-1 so they can be located with greater accuracy.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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