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Improving Wireless 911 Location Accuracy Through Innovation and Collaboration

You know the importance of mobile wireless communications to public safety. Most people call 911 from their mobile phones because it’s convenient and reliable. In fact, almost 50% of all American households primarily use wireless service.

Accurate location information is critical to responding to a 911 call in a timely and effective manner. CTIA, a trade association for the wireless industry, is working hard with its member companies and the IAFC and other public-safety professional leaders, to ensure that innovative technologies can be harnessed to deliver accurate location information for wireless 911 communications, especially indoors.

Wireless 911 Location Information Today

Wireless 911 location information is a carefully constructed and balanced process developed between wireless providers and 911 professionals. Wireless calls to 911 go through a two-phase process based on rules established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

During phase 1, a wireless call to 911 is routed to a public-safety answering point (PSAP) based on the location of the cell tower handling the call. Next, during phase 2, the PSAP requests more-specific location information and the wireless network uses a combination of technologies, including GPS-satellite information, to send coordinates estimated within a range of 50 to 300 meters. The PSAP uses the estimated coordinates to direct local first responders, such as firefighters, to the emergency location. Most wireless calls to 911 are available to PSAPs with the more granular phase-2 location information.

The 911 location technologies used by wireless carriers to meet the FCC’s existing rules were designed exclusively for 911 purposes, before the commercial location-based services (LBS) we use today for smartphone apps were widely available. For example, the commercial LBS we use on our mobile phones for navigating have been extremely successful and reset everyone’s expectations about the potential for location information, particularly indoors.

The IAFC, and other public-safety leaders, encouraged the wireless industry and policymakers to ensure our 911 system can keep up with the latest technological innovations. Because most calls to 911 come from wireless networks, wireless carriers are working with the FCC and 911 professionals to harness these new LBS technologies for wireless 911 location information.

Innovative Location Technologies to Improve Wireless 911

Last year, the FCC established new rules that will enable the wireless carriers to take an all-of-the-above approach to improve wireless 911 location accuracy through Wi Fi, Bluetooth, z-axis and any innovative location technologies that may come along. The FCC’s new approach will provide the flexibility needed to continuously improve wireless 911 location technologies while meeting the public’s and public-safety professionals’ expectations for wireless emergency communications.

Next year, the FCC’s rules require wireless carriers to begin harnessing the LBS technologies used every day, including wi-fi access points and Bluetooth beacons, to improve 911 location information for wireless 911 calls made indoors. Improvements to wireless 911 location accuracy both outdoors and indoors will also come from additional satellite and network based technologies.

By April 2021, at least 80% of all wireless 911 calls will use these technologies to deliver a location estimate within 50 meters or a dispatchable location.

Today, public-safety professionals receive estimated longitude and latitude coordinates that are generated for wireless calls to 911. Going forward, as the FCC’s rules require, a dispatchable location can be provided. A dispatchable location is a street address plus the floor, suite or apartment number. Public-safety professionals have told the FCC and the wireless industry that dispatchable location is the preferred location information to provide emergency services to callers. Considering that more than 70% of all 911 calls are made via wireless devices, it’s important to make sure the FCC’s rules are appropriately targeted, which is why we all agreed on the gold standard: a dispatchable location solution.

NEAD, Test Bed and Seeking Stakeholder Input

CTIA is leading an effort to develop the National Emergency Address Database (NEAD) that will securely and privately store the already available millions of Wi-Fi access points and Bluetooth beacons. Through the NEAD and associated technology standards, wireless carriers will be able to deliver a dispatchable location to public safety answering points (PSAPs) that will provide first responders with information to more quickly, effectively and safely respond to emergencies.

Industry leaders are also evaluating innovative beacon, barometric pressure sensor and radio frequency identification technologies that may one day further enhance 911 location information by, for example, delivering vertical/z-axis location information. These evaluations will be conducted through an independently administered 911 Location Technologies Test Bed. Testing will begin later this year in Atlanta and San Francisco.

There’s also an effort to bring together leading representatives of public safety, state and local government, privacy, people with disabilities and technology companies to help make this effort a success. Through this 911 Location Accuracy Advisory Group, the IAFC is involved in receiving regular updates on progress and providing invaluable insight to ensure the views of fire chiefs are considered at the earliest stages of implementation.

The wireless industry is committed to enhancing wireless 911 by harnessing innovative technologies to deliver more accurate 911 location information. We look forward to partnering with the IAFC and local fire and rescue professionals to ensure these improvements will result in your ability to more quickly, effectively and safely respond to emergencies.

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