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911, What's Your Emergency? For Dispatchers, it's Locating Callers

In an effort to thrust 911 call centers into the 21st century, Apple announced Monday that the next major update to iPhone software will allow users in the U.S. to automatically share location data with emergency responders.

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(TNS) - Apps such as Uber, “Pokemon Go” and Snapchat can pinpoint where users are down to the side of a block. But 911 dispatchers have to rely on distant cell towers, sometimes-faulty GPS and the caller — who is likely in distress — to figure out where calls are coming from.

In an effort to thrust 911 call centers into the 21st century, Apple announced Monday that the next major update to iPhone software will allow users in the U.S. to automatically share location data with emergency responders. Software and a data clearinghouse built by New York startup RapidSOS will let 911 centers receive callers’ locations.

San Francisco call centers

If it works as promised, Teresa Burns, a 911 telecommunications manager for the city, said the technology could save dispatchers crucial moments when deploying resources to an emergency. Eighty percent of 911 calls nationwide are made on cell phones.

“Right now, we get wireless location information, and it’s not always the most accurate,” Burns said. Wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon transmit the location of the cell tower closest to a caller with 911 calls, but that often isn’t enough to go on, especially in a dense city like San Francisco. “Obviously other businesses outside of the (911) industry are using far more advanced technology to get locations.”

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, who announced the new feature at a National Emergency Number Association conference in Nashville on Monday, said the company believes 911 centers should “have the best available technology at their disposal.”

The software update for iPhone users will be available later this year, and RapidSOS says it expects to integrate with the majority of 911 centers by the end of 2018. Apple said user data cannot be used for any nonemergency purpose, and only the responding 911 center will have access to the user’s location during an emergency call.

Federal regulators estimate that saving a minute off emergency response times could save as many 10,000 lives a year.

San Francisco has until very recently struggled with a more prosaic problem: getting the phone answered by a dispatcher promptly.

Due to a significant increase in emergency and nonemergency calls since 2011, as well as staff shortages, San Francisco frequently failed to meet the national standard of responding to 90 percent of calls in under 10 seconds. In fiscal years 2016 and 2017, only 74 percent of all calls were answered in 10 seconds.

“Answering the 911 call is different than receiving the location,” said Paul Troxel, president of CalNena, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of California emergency dispatchers. “There is no one simple answer. ... There are a ton of variables to get a dispatch center to handle calls within a certain threshold.”

Among those variables: time of day, staffing levels and the type of calls that are being answered.

Still, time saved on one call helps speed a dispatcher to the next. Eric Gornitsky, dispatch operations supervisor of San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management, said location technology can make the city’s 911 call centers more efficient.

San Francisco’s call center will test a version of the system before committing to updating its software, Gornitsky said.

With the test system, if a caller cannot articulate where they are, the dispatcher can log their cell phone number into the system and get their location.

Gornitsky said the number of people who can’t give a location is relatively small. They are often tourists who are unfamiliar with the city or people who cannot speak English and require an interpreter service.

“We are eager to look at anything that is going to help us in that small percentage,” Gornitsky said.

In the Bay Area, emergency departments in San Ramon and Solano County and at the University of California at Berkeley also use RapidSOS. A company spokeswoman says that it’s deployed in less than half of the United States.

Apple isn’t the only smartphone maker attempting to modernize the 911 system. In February, Google, which makes the software that runs Android phones, conducted a trial with RapidSOS and West Corp., another company that counts 911 centers as customers. According to RapidSOS, location data in more than 80 percent of the 911 calls made using the technology were more accurate than the carrier data in the first 30 seconds of the call.

“It’s hard to describe how intense it is at the call centers,” said Michael Martin, CEO of RapidSOS. “It is extraordinary the work that 911 does. This tech is really a product of this whole industry coming together in a way that hasn’t been done before.”

Trisha Thadani is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email:

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