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Dying on the Line

Although our voices might sometimes be the only link between a citizen who needs help or an officer who needs assistance, it’s easy to feel like we’re not being heard. Often this feeling of screaming silently is in reference to things we think will make us more successful in helping. We, as public safety telecommunications operators, sit in these chairs facing these consoles, answering these phones 24 hours a day 7 days a week. There are no Holidays or black- out periods. It doesn’t matter if it’s your birthday, your child’s birthday or the nation’s birthday. That seat will be occupied and someone will be serving the public.

Due to this, we see the things that need improvement. We pay attention to the technological glitches that make locating and helping people difficult. Although some of us might be on committees, most of the time those of us working the floor have a plethora of information about things that just aren’t working and ideas about how to improve things-if only we were asked. Well, for once, we’re being asked. In fact, an organization was formed which includes dozens of public safety agencies and concerned individuals. This organization, Find Me 911 did what we’ve been hoping for for a long time-they knew there was a problem and they asked for our opinions. And, we didn’t disappoint them with our responses-over 1,000 to be exact representing 15% of the Nation’s PSAPs. The issue at stake-911 wireless indoor location accuracy.

Jennifer Koon, age 16, was kidnapped and thrown in the trunk of her own car. Jennifer dialed 9-1-1 from her cell phone but because of her situation was unable to speak the 9-1-1 operator who answered. Having no ability to locate Jennifer, the call taker could only listen helplessly to the situation unfolding on the other end of the line. She was eventually shot three times and killed.

This is just one of the 200 personal stories shared in the survey conducted by the Find Me 911 Coalition. Public safety telecommunications operators and managers from Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) from all over the United States were asked to answer questions about issues they have had with locating callers who use wireless phones to call 911. Even as more PSAPs and carriers are moving forward with E911 implementing Phase 1 and Phase II, more citizens rely on their cell phones to make emergency calls even to the point where their cell is the only phone they have. The Federal Communications Commission reports that of the 240 million phone calls to 911 each year, 70% are from wireless callers and 38.2% of American households have gotten rid of their land line relying 100% on their wireless phone. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing since most people believe that wireless phones have increased the ability to call in an emergency from almost anywhere except for the ability to locate callers has steadily decreased. In the era of the land line, 911 operators received a phone number and an address. Now, depending on the type of service used, the capability of the phone as well as the PSAP and a variety of other factors, including a heavy reliance on GPS-only technology, 911 calls are consistently being routed to the wrong PSAP, not giving correct coordinates and dropping. These issues frequently have deadly results with the FCC estimating 10,000 people die a year due to the inability to find wireless callers. 

Why aren’t citizens more concerned?

This is the question that first popped into my mind when I started researching the immense problems in wireless location, especially indoor location when the line of sight needed for accurate location is inhibited by vast amounts of walls, floors, ceilings and concrete. Brian Fontes, CEO, National Emergency Number Association (NENA) believes the public isn’t pushing for change because they just don’t know there is a problem. “People don’t think about 911 until it’s needed,” he says. “The public really doesn’t think about it. I don’t think about whether there will be electricity when I switch the switch. It’ll just be there. The public looks at 911 the same way.” The public also expects the location technology that they use commercially on their Smartphones, such as Foursquare and tagging on Facebook, is the same concept as what public safety would use. Unfortunately, it’s not and when seconds matter, the contrast has a lot of professionals saying things need to be different and rules need to be implemented. Enter the FCC.

FCC Mandate

One of the main reasons behind the Find Me 911 Coalition survey and especially the personal stories is to guide the FCC in making a decision on implementing a new mandate on indoor location accuracy. An outdoor mandate has been in place for many years and was created before the influx of wireless users began to change the landscape of 911. After the California NENA (CalNENA) submitted a report to the FCC regarding the decline in wireless 911 location accuracy, the Commission put together testing to see what the issues were and if technology existed to change the problems. Numerous non-GPS and hybrid technologies, including Terrestrial Beacon Transmitters, RF Pattern Matching and Advanced Forward Link Trilateration (AFLT) showed a lot of promise and these technologies were already fully operational. In response, the FCC proposed a mandate to “establish interim indoor accuracy metrics that will provide approximate location information sufficient to identify the building for most indoor calls” including a vertical component.

The mandate will require that within 30 seconds of a call, 911 dispatchers will be able to pinpoint a caller's location to within 50 meters on the correct floor. Within five years, the FCC anticipates 80 percent of all wireless 911 calls will benefit from the capability. Jamie Barnett, Find Me 911 Coalition Direction and former FCC Chief of Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau believes the survey is making a difference in the proceedings as the FCC relies on first responders to help them understand the issues and create solutions.

Unfortunately, the FCC’s comment period (May 12) will be over before this column airs but that doesn’t mean our voices are silenced. Responses on comments are open until June. Also, get in touch with your government representatives and tell them that you want changes. Too many 911 operators have listened in frustration and horror as their caller dies while they are helpless to help them. Thank you to all the public safety professionals who have spoken up already and thank you, in advance, to all of those who will speak up in the future. Lives depend on it.


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