Now that approximately 80 percent of calls made to 911 are on cell phones, applications that make it easier for 911 call centers to find callers have become more important than ever.
The Wall Street Journal recently looked into why call centers have difficulty getting an exact location for callers and some of the apps that are helping to address the issue. Solving the problem has become such a priority that the FCC stepped in and ordered cell carriers to repair some of the biggest issues during the next couple of years, according to The Wall Street Journal. For good reason too—according to regulators, up to 10,000 lives could be saved a year if 911 got to callers just one minute faster.
Rural areas like Todd County, Minnesota however say there are not enough resources to put new technology in their cell center. This is not an uncommon issue in rural counties, and in Todd County’s case, carriers triangulate data amongst cell towers and send the information to 911 call centers. Todd County’s call center also counts on smart phone GPS chips, which use satellites and take up to 30 seconds to establish a position. When these technologies work together, they can find where caller is within 130 yards—much too far a distance during an emergency.
Part of what has plagued these technologies is they work best when calls are made outside, and most cell phone calls are made indoors. The devices are not as effective inside because rooftops interfere with the signal. Additionally, the devices can’t account for altitude, so it’s hard to determine what floor someone’s calling from.
“We know longitude and latitude where that is, but we don’t know the vertical height, exactly within the building where are you,” University of Maryland criminal justice adjunct professor told The Wall Street Journal. “And that can take precious minutes, precious seconds where we want to come and save lives and render aid and we’re unable to because we don’t have the exact location.”
To address this issue, the FCC is requiring nationwide carriers improve their horizontal location accuracy to within 55 yards for 80 percent of 911 calls by 2021—an increase from about 40 percent of calls that could do that in 2017, according to The Wall Street Journal.
As 2021 deadline gets closer, tech companies and carriers are getting involved to fix the issue. One software platform, RapidSOS is looking to solve the horizontal problem. When someone calls 911 on their cell phone, RapidSOS’ location information from partners like Uber and Microsoft and phone operating systems that Google and Apple run is funneled through RapidSOS and onto 911 dispatchers’ screens. The app can update the caller’s information when the phones pass by Wi-Fi hotspots, which makes the information more accurate. Dispatchers can then look at two screens—one containing RapidSOS and the other with the original system.