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Google Tests 911 Cellphone Service to Pinpoint Caller Location

Call centers in Texas, Florida and Tennessee recently completed a pilot test of the new service with favorable results.

Most 911 call centers are capable of locating landline callers, but they struggle to find cellphone users when they need emergency help. “The 911 system was designed long ago for home phones,” said Fiona Lee, Google’s global evangelist for Android Emergency Location Service (ELS).  

There is a reason why 911 call centers have trouble locating cellphone users. If the caller is outdoors, the phone's GPS chip can connect with satellites or with a cell tower; the 911 operator will know the latitude and longitude of the caller — within 164 feet or so — most of the time. However, a call made from inside a building has a harder time connecting with a satellite, which can throw off the caller's location by several hundred feet.

Google recently concluded a pilot study of its Android ELS, a supplemental service that sends location directly from Android handsets to emergency services when a person calls 911. The test involved fifty 911 call centers covering 2.4 million people in Texas, Tennessee and Florida. Google collaborated with West Corporation, a provider of communication and network infrastructure services; and RapidSOS, which works with public safety call centers by making 911 services more responsive. 

Android's ELS helps mobile network operators, emergency infrastructure providers and governments provide more accurate location information to first responders during an emergency. “It is not an app; the user does not need hardware or software,” said Lee.

When a user calls 911, the ELS is activated and enables first responders to more quickly find and help the user. ELS is a part of the Android operating system. According to Lee, if the cell user has the location application closed, the phone will activate this feature during a 911 call. 

Google successfully deployed ELS in Austria, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Lithuania, the United Kingdom and New Zealand in 2017, with more countries planning deployment in 2018, according to the European Emergency Number Association.

Christy Williams, 911 director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which includes several dozen call centers that participated in the Google ELS pilot, said her group was pleased with the results. “I went out to see the [public safety answering point] in action; the calls would come in on our native screens with a bull's-eye around it.”

For example, she said, side by side, a satellite showed that an emergency was several miles away, while Google ELS indicated that the crisis was across the street from the call center. “It told us what entrance to use and what building at the school to go into.”

Before the trial took place, it was tough to find emergency cellphone callers. “Our ability to see the location is often not what it should be,” said Williams. “The public is often frustrated with us because they expect that if Uber knows where they are, emergency services should know too.”

At the initiation of a call, ELS was “swift” and under 30 seconds, according to Williams. “If you have a heart attack, 30 seconds is a long time.” During the pilot, the call center immediately knew the location of more than 70 percent of the calls. “This is just the beginning,” she said. “This was an amazing demonstration of what is ahead for emergency services.”

Google is actively looking for partners to deploy ELS across the United States, according to Lee. The cost of implementing the service is minimal and involves little capital expenditure. ELS relies on centralized infrastructure — an endpoint — that can receive emergency location (either over HTTPS or Data SMS) and relays that information to call centers, which then incorporate this information into their call/dispatch workflows. 

The typical process to deploy ELS ranges from two to 15 weeks depending on resourcing and technical proficiency. Google works with its partners to verify performance benchmarks, and progress but the ELS partner decides when it is ready to move from one deployment phase to the next. Google will also begin to offer 911 texting.

For more information about Google ELS and an application to partner with the company, click here.

Elizabeth Zima is a former staff writer for Government Technology. She has written in depth on topics including health care, clinical science, physician relations and hospital communications.