Locations Inexact for 911 Cellphone Calls Made from Indoors

Lawmakers are urging the FCC to improve the accuracy of locating the origin of 911 cellphone calls.

by Jim Hook, McClatchy News Service / June 10, 2014
Jessica Mulholland

Lawmakers are urging the Federal Communications Commission to improve the accuracy of locating the origin of 911 cellphone calls.

U.S. Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., say first responders need better tools to locate wireless callers phoning for help indoors. They wrote FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler to encourage the agency to adopt the most protective standards that are feasible with today's technologies and that can accommodate tomorrow's.

The 911 system identifies the address from where a caller is calling, but does not distinguish if the cellphone is outside on the sidewalk, inside on the first floor or inside on the 10th floor, according to Franklin County Emergency Services Director David Donohue. He's not certain that current technology can specify the exact location of a wireless call within a huge building.

Nearly two-thirds of wireless calls to 911 centers in the U.S. originate from inside houses, apartments and buildings, according to 2014 survey by Find Me 911, a group of public safety professionals. Many times, people cannot verbally give their location.

The carrier system, such as AT&T or T-Mobile, relays the location of the phone to a 911 dispatch center.

"It has nothing to do with us," Donohue said. "It has to do with the telecommunications carriers."

The Philadelphia Inquirer
reported that FCC data indicates that two-thirds of wireless calls to Delaware County's 911 center in September had inaccurate location information.

The problem is more common in urban areas, Donohue said. "It's not a problem for us, fortunately."

A man once walked out of a pub in Franklin County and into a field where he was injured, Donovan said. The man called 911, and he was found within several feet of where the 911 global positioning system indicated first responders would find him.

The county 18 months ago validated that, except for a few isolated instances, cellular calls originated from the GPS location provided by the vendors, Donohue said.

The Major Cities Chiefs Association, including the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh police chiefs, have urged the FCC to act to improve first responders' ability to locate 911 callers who use cellular phones indoors.

"It's critical that first responders are able to locate those in need of emergency services quickly and accurately," Casey said. "I'm calling on the FCC to give law enforcement the tools they need to that help those in distress receive timely help in urgent situations."

"Ensuring that our first responders have the latest tools they need to locate the scene of an emergency is essential," Toomey said. "Better location accuracy will enable our first responders, who bravely serve us each day, to save even more lives. With this in mind, I am urging the FCC to adopt standards and ensure that when Pennsylvanians call 911, they receive life-saving help as quickly as possible."

©2014 the Public Opinion (Chambersburg, Pa.)