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Can You Find Me Now? Why Calling 911 Will Get Easier

Phones can detect your location, but emergency responders can’t. That’s all going to change soon.

When you check movie times on your cellphone, search for a restaurant or hail a ride, the device automatically knows exactly where you are and can suggest things nearby. So it’s understandable that many people assume the same holds true when they call 911 for emergency assistance.

But the fact is, 911 call centers frequently receive imprecise locations of callers from wireless carriers -- and some don’t get any location information at all. Calls from landline phones are linked to addresses. But today more than 70 percent of all 911 calls originate from cellphones, a number only expected to increase.

More reliable location information could save lives, and earlier this year an order from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set targets for companies to improve both the availability and accuracy of location information. But those upgrades remain a long way off.

Under the new rules, carriers will have to provide caller location info within 50 meters 80 percent of the time by 2021, along with vertical location information -- is the caller in the basement or on the 22nd floor? -- that would have to be in place in top markets by 2023.

Critics have derided the rules, calling for shorter timelines and targets specific to calls placed indoors, which lack location information much more frequently than calls placed outdoors with a clear view of the sky. Originally, the FCC had proposed rules with a much more aggressive timeline. But telecom companies succeeded in lobbying against the proposals, arguing they relied on expensive and unproven technology. The revised rules were developed in agreement with the nation’s four largest wireless carriers, along with the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), which represents dispatchers, supervisors and private-sector service providers. “We would have liked to have seen a more compressed timetable,” says NENA CEO Brian Fontes, “but reality isn’t going to allow for it.”

Of course, 911 dispatchers do ask callers for their location. But sometimes callers hang up. Other times, they might not know exactly where they are if they are traveling in unfamiliar places. For this reason, it’s crucial that communities maintain signs and posted mile markers, says Gary McCarraher, who chairs the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ communications committee. “It’s really low-tech systems that have been the mainstay of emergency location for centuries,” he says, “and they’re still important.”

Meanwhile, minutes matter when responding to a call, and communicating more precise location information is critical, says McCarraher. “For every passing second, we push up the numbers of deaths, injuries and dollar loss to the public.” 

Mike Maciag is Data Editor for GOVERNING.
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