by Bill Snyder

Mobile Phones Need Better Location Tech for Emergencies

Aug 27, 20143 mins
CarriersConsumer ElectronicsMobile

If you place a 911 call using your mobile phone while indoors, emergency responders may not be able to find you.

If you call 911 from your landline phone, the call center knows exactly where you are. Call 911 from your wireless phone when you’re outdoors, and your location will likely be determined with relative accuracy. If you use that same smartphone indoors, however — particularly in a multi-story building — the accuracy of the call location drastically decreases.

emergency 911 SMS text on iPhone

The relative inaccuracy of location technology for 911 calls made from wireless phones is troubling in an era when more and more people are ditching landlines. If the caller can speak to a 911 operator, there’s usually no problem. If they can’t — they’re ill, hurt or afraid to speak because an intruder is nearby — they could be in serious trouble.

The FCC is considering a set of rules to improve the accuracy of those calls, but it is unclear if existing technology is able to solve the problem. Even if it is, it will take at least a few years for the new rules to go into effect.

Emergency providers have had trouble pinpointing the locations of wireless callers for years. It now appears that network technologies installed during the last few years made the problem worse, according to Andrew Weinstein, a spokesman for Find Me 911, a coalition of about three dozen police, fire and emergency services organizations.

Weinstein cites a 2013 study by The California Chapter of the National Emergency Number Association that found “more than half of California’s wireless 911 calls are delivered without caller location information.” The association says the accuracy of wireless calls to 911 decreased sharply between 2008 and 2013, particularly in densely populated areas, such as San Francisco. The switch from land-based network technologies to GPS location tech is likely responsible for the decline in call-location accuracy, according to Weinstein.

I was surprised by what Weinstein had to say; I simply assumed that wireless calls could easily be tracked. That’s only true when your phone is using Wi-Fi. When it’s using the voice network, tracking is much less accurate, he says.

Existing GPS technology can be blocked or impeded by walls and ceilings when you’re indoors and by structures that block lines of sight to satellites when you’re outdoors. Modern GPS technology also does not indicate how far above the ground the phone is, so if you’re calling from the eighth floor of an office building, that information is not automatically collected.

I’m apparently not the only one who is surprised. Find Me 911 commissioned a consumer survey and found that only about six percent of the people queried knew about the 911 problems. After they were informed, nearly everyone said they were in favor of regulations designed to improve the location accuracy of wireless emergency calls.