Dispatch: “4 Charlie, 911 Wireless, area of Main and 1st, nothing heard, no answer on call back.”
4 Charlie: “4 Charlie copy.” A few minutes pass. “4 Charlie in the area of the 911 wireless. Nothing seen or heard. Code 4. 10-8.”
Each day, units all over the nation are dispatched to 911 “hang up” calls. Traditionally, they come from phones that had a static, physical location. When the caller dialed 911, the call came through and the automatic location identification (ALI) information provided a physical address of 1234 Main St. with the phone number.
Technology has changed, however; now callers have mobile cellular devices and Internet-enabled phone technology, neither of which requires a phone to be mounted to the wall inside a residence or business. This change has affected the way 911 centers handle these types of calls.
A decade of 911
Ten or so years ago, cellular phone users who dialed 911 would typically be routed to a public safety answering point (PSAP) communications center whose dispatchers had to determine where exactly the caller was so they could route the call to the appropriate city/sheriff’s communication center. This process caused untimely delays in emergency situations.
Technology has advanced and laws have since changed for the better. In 1999, the Enhanced 911 (E911) Act was put in place, which mandated a two-phase responsibility for wireless carriers:
Phase I required carriers to be able to provide the ANI (automatic number identification) and location of the cell site or base station from where a call originates.
Phase II required carriers to be able to provide the ALI (automatic location identification) information for mobile 911 calls with greater precision — within 50 to 300 meters.
Unfortunately, the process of transitioning to this program is not exactly simple or fluid. Technological change is often hindered by money and infrastructure. The 2002 “Report on Technical and Operational Issues Impacting The Provision of Wireless Enhanced 911 Services,” prepared for the Federal Communications Commission, expressed concern for E911’s success, given sadly outdated infrastructure and technology that was incapable of handling Phase II’s demands.
Many carriers were unable to meet those demands or the deadlines associated with them, and were fined in 2005. Deadlines were then extended to 2008, then to 2009; now a full compliance date is set for 2012. Yet the FCC and wireless companies continue to haggle over an appropriate length of time to meet the standards.
Problems with mobile devices
As communications centers find ways to deal with the lack of full E911 functionality, the FCC estimates that more than 70 percent of emergency calls now come from the nearly 300 million mobile phone users in the United States. What does this mean for E911?
When a wireless call comes in now, it can be either Phase I or Phase II. The responding agency likely treats Phase I and Phase II calls the same way. If the call comes in and is still active, the operator listens to discern whether there is really a problem. If the caller hangs up before or after connecting, the operator returns the call to confirm whether the situation is OK, or an emergency.
Units are automatically dispatched for calls that disconnect before the operator makes contact. For Phase I calls, the unit is provided with the area around the tower from which the call originated. For Phase II calls, the unit is given the closest geographical area as provided by the carrier. Either way, however, it’s rare for the actual incident location to be pinpointed. At best, Phase II calls may indicate locations that are one building away in one case, and a street over in other cases.
The resulting delays are not unlike they were 10 years ago. These problems are compounded in rural areas, which are still getting the worst of the technology. Phase II rollouts have not been completed as carriers and the FCC focus on more urban settings. This, together with already extended response times in rural areas, continues to make emergency response difficult.