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The alarming state of wireless location accuracy

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A frightening number of wireless 911 calls arrive at public-safety answering points without critical location information, a situation that needs to be remedied as soon as possible.

By David Jones

This summer, CALNENA, the California chapter of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), dropped a bomb on the 911 community.  It told the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that more than half of all California wireless 911 calls in five geographic areas were delivered to public-safety answering points (PSAPs) without critical location information that helps find callers who are unable to communicate their location. 

In early October, the FCC planned to hold an E-911 Phase II location accuracy workshop to explore the CALNENA reports, but the government shutdown postponed the meeting. 

More than 657,000 calls are made to 911 per day—according to a report published by the Industry Council for Emergency Response technologies—and 70 percent of these calls are made from wireless phones, according to FCC estimates. So, this issue greatly impacts PSAPs, first responders and citizens.

While current FCC requirements ensure that commercial wireless carriers provide PSAPs with location information that generally is accurate within 300 meters for network-based solutions and 150 meters for handset-based solutions, the California data showed a dramatic decline in the availability of 911 callers’ location information since 2008.  The worst declines were in cities like San Francisco, where the urban terrain of tall buildings may have limited the GPS functionality of the devices. 

Beyond the issues of geography, another challenge PSAPs face today concerning location information is that it may not arrive at the same time as the call.  Additionally, if the caller is still mobile, the call-taker may have to “re-bid” the information – or ask the computer system for more precise information while still handling the call – which can further delay how quickly the call is processed.  This is unacceptable for PSAPs and first responders, who rely on accurate caller location information to provide emergency services when seconds often make a difference. 

An interesting side note is that recent FCC filings claim that potential exists for technologies that would provide a time to first fix (TTFF)—the time required for GPS systems to acquire the satellite signal and navigation data and then determine a position—of less than five seconds, and possibly Z-axis location accuracy—the vertical axis—of less than five meters indoors.  Location specifications that accurate—indoors, outdoors and in challenging urban settings—would offer immeasurable benefits and improvements to the capabilities of 911 telecommunicators and first responders—and, in turn, to the service they provide to their communities. Such benefits and improvements arguably would be as important as the initial introduction of 911 service.

Hopefully, these matters will become increasingly important, and will not become lost in the hoopla concerning the nationwide public-safety broadband network that FirstNet is building. Certainly, the excitement is justified, and it only will increase should they find a way to deliver mission-critical voice service over this network. But it is equally imperative that indoor wireless location accuracy requirements continue to be at the forefront for PSAPs, first responders and citizens, and continue to evolve in a positive manner, because all stand to benefit from improved wireless location data when an emergency occurs. 

It is not too much then to ask that members of industry produce technology of this caliber and make it widely available.  It is not too much to ask the public-safety community to work with industry to create mutually acceptable production timelines and price points for such technology.  Our citizens deserve it—and our first responders certainly need it.

David Jones currently is vice president of Mission Critical Partners, a 911-sector consultancy, and is a NENA past president. He also is a member of Urgent Communications' editorial advisory council. 

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

on Nov 12, 2013

The FCC is not asking for much in the data they require from the cellular carriers. Having worked for several of them over the course of some 18 years, it was about 10 years back when they started providing the wireless callers location. If it hasn't been delivered, then shame on the PSAP locations in not saying something before this.

So the blame can be spread over a number of people in this one. Even the FCC has their hands dirty on this subject. If they have not done their due diligence on the matter in keeping on the toes of the cellular carriers, then part of the blame is right in their lap.

Rather than point fingers, the big question is why is the location data not being presented to the PSAP locations? Is it more than one carrier that is guilty in not providing this data all the time, or is a random problem?

Either way, a focus needs to be done on just where the problem lies. We all need to get together and look at the problem. If it takes calling the carriers into each and every PSAP location, then that may take some action on the part of the FCC. The cellular carriers may put up some resistance on devoting heavy man hours to locate the issue. It may even be in the local or regional telephone carrier causing part of this problem.

Hello FCC, you need to bring this issue to the table and help getting it resolved.

Jimmy Bryant (not verified)
on Nov 20, 2013

I believe the problem right now is DISCLOSURE !! No one is disclosing to the consumer the difference between calling 911 on a cellular phone and a land line. Most of the consumers I have spoken with have no idea, that there is a difference. I have recently contacted the American Heart Association, the # one leader of of CPR training in the world. Have, Video's showing people indoor airports to call 911 and start CPR. They do not explain that when, you call 911 from a cellular phone. The 911 dispatchers have no idea of their location. The AHA also had a video of a woman walking in a room. With a couch and end table, with a land line phone sitting on the table. A man lying on the floor, the woman walks over to the man. kneels down takes a cellular phone out of her pocket and calls 911 and then starts CPR. That just goes to show that the # one trainer of CPR is not Disclosing the proper method of call 911 from a cellular phone.

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