With the vast proliferation of mobile phones in less than two decades, more consumers are deciding they don't need a traditional landline phone.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found in late 2013 that 2 out of 5 U.S. homes - 41% - didn't have a landline but relied only on a wireless phone. That means in case of emergency, these consumers would have to call 9-1-1 on their mobile phone and hope their location showed up on the dispatcher's screen.
Often, it doesn't. A group called The Find Me 9-1-1 Coalition used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about wireless 9-1-1 calls made in Washington, D.C.
[Editor's note: According to its website, the Coalition received initial funding from True Position, a company that provides geo-location solutions for cellphones. The company and some cellphone carriers have been in a publicly-aired dispute over solutions the FCC should consider, as a recent article by Fierce Wireless indicates.]
The group found that from December 2012 to July 2013, 9 out of 10 wireless 9-1-1 calls made in DC were delivered without the accurate location information needed to find callers who are lost, confused, unconscious or otherwise unable to share their location.
This location information is latitude-longitude data called "Phase II" information. Emergency 9-1-1 systems across the country have updated their systems over the last 20 years to automatically display this data when a call comes in.
But the system was designed for landline telephone systems. While they are supposed to work with some wireless devices, The Find Me 9-1-1 Coalition says the information can be useless, showing only the cell tower location nearest to the caller.
"These results reveal an alarming public safety crisis," said Jamie Barnett, former Chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau and Director of the Find Me 9-1-1 Coalition. "When 9 in 10 emergency callers in our nation's capital cannot be located on wireless phones, we know that the requirements for location accuracy must be updated immediately."
The FCC has, in fact, proposed new rules to improve emergency call systems to more accurately pinpoint the location of wireless callers.
"This (data) should eliminate any doubt about the importance of rapid adoption of that rule," Barnett said.
The problem is the technology used by more wireless carriers, something called A-GPS. It depends on a direct line of sight to satellites, so it might work fine if you called 9-1-1 from the middle of a grassy meadow. But it often fails in indoor locations or dense urban areas like DC.
Matter of life and death
The FCC has proposed to rectify that with a new rule - Proceeding 07-114 - requiring wireless carriers to provide accurate location data for indoor calls within two years. By the FCC's own estimates, implementing the rule could save 10,000 lives each year with faster emergency response times.
"The nation's capital faces unique security issues, and it's critical that 9-1-1 callers in DC be quickly located in an emergency," Barnett said. "Unfortunately, the safety of our residents and visitors is being put at risk on an ongoing basis when 9-1-1 cannot identify their locations to send help."
The FCC data also provides a breakdown by carrier of wireless 9-1-1 calls. There was a wide variation among carriers for delivery of accurate "Phase II" information.
Verizon and Sprint had best results
Verizon had the best record, with 24.6% of its 9-1-1 calls delivering accurate location information. Sprint was second, at 23.3%.
After that there was a significant fall-off. T-Mobile delivered only 3.2% and AT&T just 2.6%.
The Coalition says the people who answer those 9-1-1 calls also want the system improved.
It says a survey of first responder call centers found that 99% supported the FCC's proposed requirements for indoor location accuracy within two years, and another 99% said the adoption of that rule was "critically" or "very" important for public safety in their communities.
If you have the need to call 9-1-1 from your cell phone during the next 2 years, be sure to start off by telling the dispatcher your precise location. Otherwise, they might not know.