Why Your Apps Can Find You, But 911 Can't

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nine-one-one with the address of your

emergency where are you right now this

kind of scenario isn't unusual many

9-1-1 call centers struggle to

accurately locate callers on their cell

phones location please but about 80% of

calls made to 911 are made on cell

phones according to a trade group in

2018 regulators estimated that up to ten

thousand lives could be saved annually

if 911 callers just a one minute faster

these problems locating 911 callers are

so prevalent that in 2015 the FCC

stepped in and ordered cell carriers to

fix some of the biggest location issues

over the next couple of years some of

these plans have already started to roll

out but let's look at why this is

technically much trickier than it might

seem first let's look at a county that

hasn't yet adopted at any of these fixes

this is Todd County in Minnesota they

say they don't have enough resources for

new technology for their call center

which is common in rural counties here

carriers triangulate data among cell

towers and send that information to 911

call centers this can cause problems in

rural areas where towers are sparse this

County's 9-1-1 call center also relies

on smart phone GPS chips which use

satellites and can take up to 30 seconds

to establish position together these

technologies can establish where the

caller is within a radius of about 120

meters that's more than the length of a

football field part of the problem is

that both of these technologies work

best when callers are using their cell

phones from outdoor locations the

majority of cell phone calls are made

indoors where these devices are less

effective because rooftops interfere

with signal they also don't address

altitude meaning which floor of a

building a caller is calling from this

is a bigger problem in large cities we

know you know longitude and latitude

where that is but we don't know the

vertical height exactly within the

building where are you 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

location so that's the problem now let's

look at one of the ways that's being

fixed one of the FCC's demands requires

that nationwide carriers improve their

horizontal location accuracy to within

50 meters for 80% of 9-1-1 calls by 2021

that's an increase from only 40 percent

of calls that were able to do that in

2017 with FCC deadlines approaching tech

companies and carriers are getting

involved to help solve the problem one

startup backed by three former FCC

leaders created a software called rapid

SOS to help fix the horizontal problem

let's look at Collier County in Florida

which already uses rapid SOS as software

when a caller dials 9-1-1 on a smart

phone rapid SOS says location

information from partners including uber

and Microsoft and phone operating

systems run by Google and Apple is

funneled through rapid SOS and onto 911

dispatcher screens these apps update

their location automatically when phones

passed by Wi-Fi hotspots making the

information much more accurate

dispatchers can then look at two screens

one with rapid SOS and the other with

the original system so obviously Google

Apple over these other leading

technology companies are really good at

locating us the challenge historically

has been is getting that information

into the hands of 911 and first respond

one test by Google found that rapid SOS

reduced the average radius in which a

caller may be located to about 36 meters

about a third of a football field

so now counties like Clark County

Florida can get a much more accurate

location coming through this system

leveraging all the different sensors in

a callers phone rapid SOS has already

been deployed in more than a third of

the 5,700 9-1-1 call centers nationwide

that covers over 60% of Americans rapid

SOS is just one of many companies that's

come up with a potential solution others

include Google's Android emergency

location services and Motorola's

solutions call works but these

technologies aren't a blanket fix for

now the software can only locate callers

along horizontal lines meaning they

can't send dispatchers data about where

callers are located from a height


this is especially problematic for

people living in cities the FCC is also

requiring cellphone carriers to provide

the vertical location in the 25 largest

metropolitan areas by 2021 and in the 50

largest by 2023 because of this

technology companies like Polaris

Wireless have started to detect where a

caller is located vertically let's look

at Willis Tower

Chicago's tallest freestanding building

it's 108 stories today when a responder

goes there they don't know whether the

caller is on the first floor or the

hunter Nathe floor with our solution we

can say you're on the your altitude

comes to the 76th floor and first

responders would know it's the 75th 76

or 77 they don't have to climb 108

floors looking for the caller

smartphones today have a barometer

inside that sensor can help us determine

the altitude of the device and based on

the altitude of that device we can

extrapolate how many floors you're above

ground while Polaris Wireless has it

been deployed in any call centers yet

early tests have found that they can

locate a caller within 2.8 meters 80% of

the time this would represent a big step

forward for 911 while companies race to

solve this problem how fast 9-1-1 can

find you still depends a lot on where

you live which carrier you have and what

technology your local 911 center has