Urgent Matters

Getting accurate location information for indoor wireless 911 must be a priority


Whether the details of the FCC proposal on indoor location accuracy for 911 can be executed is questionable, but there is no debate that the need for such rules is needed; in fact, it is long overdue.

“Location, location, location”—it’s long been the answer for the three most important things in real estate, but determining location has become crucial in a number of other industries. Perhaps none of these are as important as public safety, where the ability to determine the location of a victim can be the difference between life and death.

Last week, the initial comment period closed on the FCC proceeding to examine potential location-accuracy requirements for locating those seeking help via the 911 system while communicating with a wireless device from an indoor location. A reply-comment period still needs to transpire, but the public-safety community—from law enforcement to fire/EMS to 911 officials—was overwhelming in its support of the FCC proposal to establish indoor-location accuracy requirements.

This support is not surprising, given the circumstances faced by first responders. With the proliferation of cell phones, more than 70% of all calls to 911 are coming from these consumer handheld devices. In addition, more than 30% of households have “cut the cord” and do not even subscribe to wireline phone services that automatically very good location data. In addition, people travel more than ever, so they often are not familiar with their environment and may not be able to provide a verbal description of their location.

These two growing trends mean that an ever-increasing number of calls to 911 are coming from indoor locations, where no location-accuracy rules currently apply. While many applications rely on GPS-based location systems, they are of little help indoors, because the GPS satellite signal is blocked by the exterior of a building.

This is particularly problematic in structures like multi-level apartment buildings. In many cases, apartment residents choose not to have a wireline phone, because they are trying to save money and/or because they rarely are in the apartment while awake—it makes more sense to have friends and family call them on a cell phone that is with them almost at all times.

But such circumstances can be troublesome for public safety, when a call is made to 911 from such structures. In many cases, the XY coordinates for providing latitude and longitude location data is not accurate, because of the aforementioned limitations of GPS. Furthermore, even when accurate XY coordinates are available, finding the right room in a multi-level apartment or office building can take considerable time, because no vertical information—the Z axis—is available to indicate what floor the emergency caller is on.

Discuss this Blog Entry 6

Anonymous (not verified)
on May 20, 2014

Who's going to pay for all of this? We can't get building owners to pony up for BDA systems as it is, much less this.

on May 20, 2014

There is a very simple way to make most of this go away. Mandate LECs to provide an emergency only land line for $5/month. If you can afford to be out of your residence for most waking hours, you can afford $5/month. Sometimes, silly ideas come well before a technology or financial solution. I pay for a landline for this very reason. It is worth the cost. If it isn't worth the cost to everyone else, let them deal with the circumstances. I don't feel that the public needs to pay billions of dollars to solve this one.

As for people on the move, how was this handled before cell phones? I'm eagerly awaiting a response.

I see this as another gimmick for the Federal Government to have the ability to spy a little more than they already do...which is way too much. If anyone disagrees, I would love to see the statistics that shows the occurrences of people not knowing where they are, indoors, when they make a 911 call.

My two cents have been given.

Ric Plummer - Berlin MA FD Retired (not verified)
on May 20, 2014

This is a problem that has been the subject of annual workshops at Worcester Polytechnic Institute as result of the December 3, 1999 Worcester Cold Storage Wharehouse fire and the loss of 6 firefighters.
The issue of Precision Location in structures with no pre-installed infrastructures is of great interest to first responders and some progress has been made with inertial navigation and RF ranging technologies aiding GPS.
Perhaps this demand will engender a significant enough investment to solve the problem and the First Responder community will also benefit !

Anonymous (not verified)
on May 20, 2014

What is not clear, is how the FCC can jump over the top of one of the longest running location issues involving wireline communciations and E9-1-1, that being the location information of wired equipment. This issue is still not resolved and yet this new visionary approach to location is proposed. At not time would Public safety agenices oppose such a goal from the FCC, but the ability for the FCC to enact this and enforce it will be interesting to watch. I have not yet seen an article from the carriers saying that they could meet this goal. In addition, like E9-1-1, the ability for Public Safety to be able to utilize this information effectively will likely be a long process as most mapping systems that are in place, budgeted and maintained are only XY.

on May 20, 2014

In the workshop simulations of incidents, we have used GUIs inX,Y,Z with no building plans and they perform well, BUT the accuracy of the sensors to give accurate 3D information is still the problem.
When the sensors become available, to give accurate 3D relative to a known point, say front door, the rest is just doable hard work.

Anonymous (not verified)
on May 20, 2014

Since the FCC is looking at requiring location accuracy from carriers, wouldn't it also make sense to add this same requirement to the FirstNet infrastructure / requirements? Public Safety is supporting the FCC with this technical requirement, so it should also be equally applied to this system with the same accuracy requirements before being put into operation.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.


Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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