Left to die

A Lansing woman’s 911 call was punctuated by screams as her ex-husband brutally stabbed her to death. The police were unable to pinpoint the location of the call until after she was dead.

Denise Murray was forced to wait seven minutes and make three separate 911 calls from her cellular phone before help was dispatched after her daughter was impaled by a three-foot steel rod that had crashed through their windshield. Murray was forced to exit the interstate and find a major intersection in order to give the dispatchers her location. While a frantic Murray waited for emergency help for her injured daughter, confused dispatchers asked where she was 23 times.

Mary Thomas dialed 911 while having a stroke. The call was taken by FDNY dispatcher and EMT Joann Hilman-Payne, who initially dispatched rescue workers to an East 71st street address. Thomas was not at that location. Because Thomas was experiencing a stroke her speech was slurred and she was unable to communicate her location. According to the New York Post, Hilman-Payne was on the phone with Thomas for nearly eight hours before being located. She died the following day.

These three harrowing stories might sound like a plot of fiction, but unfortunately they are not. They are very real. These, along with 197 other personal stories packed a personal punch when sent to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as part of a survey conducted by the Find Me 911 Coalition in the hope of affecting changes to current inaccurate wireless 911 location.

911 and the FCC

The current FCC E-911 regulations, which have been in place for a number of years, include Phase I and Phase II rules. Phase I allows the PSAP to receive the physical address of the cell tower the caller is attached to and the bearing of the center of the sector the caller is attached to. “The way that’s thought about in public safety is that’s the location of the tower, not the caller,” states Trey Forgety, Director of Government Affairs, NENA. Phase II, on the other hand, gives carriers two options: Network-based technology, which is being phased out, and handset-based technology which has Global Positioning System (GPS)/Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) chips inside the handset. Regulations require carriers locate a caller within 50 meters 67 percent of the time and 150 meters 90 percent of the time. The problem is these only apply to calls made from outside and horizontally, therefore leaving a majority of calls being made from inside high-rise buildings outside the rules. Take for example, a caller from the Galaxy Towers in Guttenberg, New Jersey where retail, office and 1,075 apartments incorporate three 416-foot octagon towers overlooking the Hudson River, or the Queensboro Houses in Long Island City (NY) where 3,172 apartments house 6,907 people. Any densely populated area with multi-storied structures is going to face decreased 911 wireless location accuracy, and decreased accuracy means people die. In fact, the FCC estimates that 10,000 people die each year because first responders cannot find them after they call 911.

“There was a significant drop in the ability of PSAPs to locate people calling 911 on cell phones in the last five to six years,” explains Retired Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett, Director of the Find Me 911 Coalition and former FCC Chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. The drop wasn’t recognized at first, he explains, but now it’s understood that moving to GPS-only technology, which was accurate outside, doesn’t translate the same indoors. “That is why we are having such an emotional and fervent outpouring from the 911 community that says we have to have capabilities indoors, and the FCC is saying new rules need to be implemented.”

More people than ever

According to the FCC, 70 percent of the 240 million calls to 911 each year come from wireless phones. The CTIA—The Wireless Association—states as of December 2012 38.2 percent of households in the United States are wireless-only. This is up from 15.8 percent in 2007, indicating an increase of more than double over a five-year period. This percentage is even higher in low-income and minority neighborhoods, and continues to rise as Americans give up their land-line.

“We have more people who are going to wireless only and they are inside buildings when they call us,” explains Danita Crombach, CalNENA President and Retired Communications Manager with Ventura County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Office. “It’s the same problem in Chicago or San Francisco or New York. Anytime you’re trying to penetrate concrete it can be challenging.” The trend in increased wireless users is at the heart of the current 911 location accuracy issue and behind the Find Me 911 survey.

CSRIC test bed and mandate

In response to concerns, the FCC began testing. In March 2013, the FCC’s Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council (CSRIC) III’s Working Group 3’s Indoor Location Test Bed Report came out showing there were significant issues with the GPS-only technology currently being used. The report also showed that other technologies exist that could be used individually and in tandem to improve indoor location accuracy of 911. Due to this, 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. Appreciating the mandate, but seeing this issue as more of a pressing public safety problem, Find Me 911 Coalition conducted their survey hoping to get the FCC to move forward more quickly, suggesting no more than two years. “It’s an aggressive timeframe,” Barnett explains. “I’m sure (carriers) are looking at how much it would cost to drill that out.

The FCC has correctly identified this as a public safety problem, and typically when the safety of the public is involved, the FCC will press companies to do something right away. If implemented in the two-year time-frame, you will save 10,000 lives per year. How do you put a cost on that?”

Find Me 911 coalition survey

The FCC relies on public safety professions to help them understand the real issues occurring in the field; the Test Bed Find Me 911 Coalition provided more reasons for change. “We thought it would be more helpful if there was a unified set of statistics to use and base their decision on,” says Barnett. The coalition had a tremendous response of 1,014 PSAP managers and employees representing 15 percent of the PSAPs across the nation, big and small. The survey asked about issues faced in 911 centers focusing on wireless location accuracy. Here are some of the survey’s findings:

97 percent of the PSAPs surveyed indicated they had received a wireless 911 call within the last year where the caller could not tell the dispatcher his or her location

82 percent of 911 personnel do not have a great deal of confidence in the location data provided to their PSAPs by the wireless carriers

54 percent said that the Phase II information provided by carriers that is supposed to show the caller’s location is “regularly” inaccurate.

99 percent supported the FCC’s proposed requirements for indoor location accuracy within two years

99 percent percent said the adoption of that rule was “critically” or “very” important for public safety in their communities

94 percent opposed waiting an additional three years to implement the rule, as some carriers have proposed

Barnetts states they had a tremendous response; the passion came out in 200 personal stories. “Statistics are one thing; they have their own power," he says. "Then when you see how this applies to a mother with a young toddler choking, or a woman who is being sexually assaulted at the time, you can see the real human impact of not having the technology. There is no 911 professional who is overpaid. They are doing it because they believe it in. It is frustrating to listen to someone dying over the phone.”

Technology exists

Many critics state the technology to meet the FCC mandate doesn’t exist, but this is inaccurate. “The FCC did tests and it’s clear there is more than one technology that is capable indoors,” Barnett says. It’s not about asking carriers to move away from GPS, but about asking them to use more technology: “Adding technology that will locate you no matter where you are,” he explains. Find Me 911 Coalition outlines numerous technologies that are currently operational. Three of these technologies participated in the CSRIC Test Bed:

Advanced Forward Link Trilateration (AFLT)

A technology that computes location by measuring the time it takes multiple cell tower transmissions to reach the cell phone

Fully operational

Provided by Qualcomm

RF Pattern Matching

Computes location by measuring the power levels received by the handset from multiple cell towers

Fully operational

Provided by Polaris Wireless

Terrestrial Beacon Transmitters

Computes location by measuring the time it takes signals to arrive at the handset from multiple beacons

Fully operational

Developed by Progeny/NextNav

TruePosition, Inc. currently operates Uplink Time Difference of Arrival (U-TDOA) technology and is developing technology utilizing digital television signals to measure the time it takes multiple cell tower transmissions to reach the cell phone. TruePosition recently submitted comments to the FCC indicating their support for the mandate, and reiterating technology already exists to accomplish the mandate’s goals.

David McHoul reiterates this position: “TruePosition fully supports the FCC’s initiative to improve the ability to locate 911 calls made from indoor environments. TruePosition’s U-TDOA technology has enabled U.S. wireless carriers to comply with the FCC E911 accuracy requirements for more than 10 years, and TruePosition’stechnology will meet the proposed accuracy guidelines within the required timeframe.” The collaboration between many of these companies increases confidence that these upgrades will not be cost prohibitive.

“The public deserves better and our public safety dispatchers deserve better,” Crombach says. “Their goal is to help. and the only way they can help is to send the right resources to the right location in a timely manner. The public needs to be aware. I don’t like scare tactics. The sky is not falling. The world is not ending, but location accuracy is incredibly important if we are going to send public safety help to people in need. We can’t send the first resource until we know where the situation is occurring, and that is challenging in a wireless world.”

Although comments to the FCC on the new mandate close May 12th, NENA CEO Brian Fontes recommends public safety professions keep working. “I encourage communities to place priority on 911,” he states. “It is the first link to get services to an individual in a time of need.” He reminds it is critical that communities, local, state and county government invest in state of the art 911 technology and keep their people trained. This, along with the FCC mandates and improved indoor location technology, will save lives.

“There are so many problems that we can’t do anything about,” concludes Barnett. “This one we can.”


Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University.