The alarming state of wireless location accuracy
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.