911 Access

911, Where’s Your Emergency?

Tricia McConnell
Tricia McConnell
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A few weeks ago, I called 911. I was reacting to a fairly regular occurrence: the fire alarm in the building where I live in had gone off in the middle of the night, waking me out of a deep sleep. I left my apartment, grabbing my cell phone on the way out to place the emergency call (just in case one my equally groggy neighbors hadn’t).

The first question the dispatcher asked me was “Where’s your emergency?” This is because the most important data point in a 911 call is the location. I know this because I work for a 911 technology company, but I never gave it much thought beforehand. My guess is that I’m not alone. Most of us assume when we call 911 that public safety knows exactly where we are, regardless of the device we use. However, despite all of the technology available to us, determining the precise location of 911 callers is still a challenge. 

Defining Dispatchable Location 

NENA (the National Emergency Number Association), public safety’s industry organization, estimates that more than 80% of all 911 calls originate from wireless devices, and that number is often higher in urban areas. 

911 relies heavily on a relatively new concept called “dispatchable location.” This term has been applied by the FCC in rulings for both wireless and VoIP 911 over the past few years. It is not just a street address in many cases—it’s more accurate to say that it is the door that first responders need to find to assist callers. At home, my dispatchable location is both the street address of my building and my apartment number. As I write this, my dispatchable location is 1010 Main Campus Drive, Raleigh, NC 27604, 2nd Floor, Darth Vader Conference Room. 

Determining dispatchable location for wireless calls is particularly challenging because our mobile phones are by their very nature not tied to a physical address. Instead, wireless 911 calls rely on either the address of the nearest cell tower, the latitude and longitude (X, Y) of the handset itself, or some combination of both. 

Cell tower location may be across the street, a block away or, in my case last week, ½ mile away from my home. Device-based location using X, Y coordinates is more accurate but still imperfect. First responders aren’t dispatched to a set of coordinates on a map. Instead, the coordinates are converted into a dispatchable location—in other words, the nearest physical address. 

It’s possible the dispatcher who took my call that night had my location in front of him, but it’s more likely that he didn’t. Even if he had the street address, as I placed the call, I was in a multi-level concrete structure, so I’m certain he didn’t know what floor I was on or where I was on that floor. That location—called vertical location or Z-axis, is even more difficult to pinpoint from wireless devices. And the FCC is just now beginning to take steps to require carriers to solve this problem. 

Embedding Emergency Calling into Apps and Software

New IoT and over-the-top (OTT) smartphone applications offer intriguing alternative solutions to some of the problems of wireless 911 location. For instance, let’s say I have a doorbell camera installed at my home. As part of the installation process, I’ve provided a (dispatchable) address for the camera and downloaded an app to my smartphone that allows me to monitor my house while I’m at work or on vacation. 

Now, let’s say I get an alert on the app that notifies me of activity at my front door, and I can clearly see through video that an intruder is trying to enter my home. If I were to call 911 from my wireless device, my call would be routed the public safety answering point (PSAP) where I’m calling from, and not the PSAP responsible for responding to emergencies at my home. When this happens, the PSAP will have to manually transfer the call to the right call center—assuming they know where to transfer the call. I might be in luck if I’m at work in a neighboring jurisdiction, but this won’t be the case if I’m calling from a different state. In that case the PSAP would most likely tell me to hang up and look up the number for the police station online. 

Another benefit of using the app instead of the native dialer on my smartphone: the 911 call taker will have a dispatchable location for the emergency, including my apartment number, and not the more problematic, less reliable wireless 911 location. That can shave valuable seconds off response times. 

Am I suggesting that OTT apps are a comprehensive solution to all the problems with wireless 911 location? Not at all. But by embedding emergency calling into the applications and devices we interact with every day, public safety has more context and information to act on where none existed before. 

VoIP E911 Location Accuracy

We can say in most cases that VoIP 911 location is slightly more refined than wireless, but enterprises have to consider and plan for the use of both during emergencies. You may assume employees will usually pick up their cell phones in the case of an emergency, and you’re most likely correct. However, VoIP calls still make up for a sizable portion of emergency calling in this country. In 2018, the state of California alone reported more than 2 million 911 calls originating from VoIP phones. 

The FCC recently adopted stricter rules around multi-line telephone systems (MLTS) including Kari’s Law and RAY BAUM’s Act. Kari’s Law requires direct dialing to 911, eliminating the use of a prefix such as an “8” or “9” to get an outside line. It also requires that someone within the enterprise—the security team or a front desk attendant—be notified that a 911 call has been placed. 

Dynamic, Nomadic E911 VoIP Location

RAY BAUM’s Act requires enterprises to provide a dispatchable location to public safety. For environments where employees sit at assigned workstations attached to desk phones, the solutions for this are relatively easy to implement. The enterprise pre-populates all users and addresses in a database (usually through a provider like Bandwidth) and that information is used to route 911 calls to the appropriate PSAP and is immediately made available to call takers for first response. 

However, in today’s modern enterprises, users are increasingly unpinned from workstations and desk phones. Enterprises are installing more softphone applications on laptops and mobile devices to help employees to collaborate and communicate. I see this trend reflected in my own work habits—I can rarely be found at my assigned desk. I spend most days moving between buildings and floors to meet with colleagues, or I am holed up in a quiet spot to work remotely. 

All of this mobility creates an understandable level of concern for the enterprise that has to provide an accurate dispatchable location in a way that’s consistent with the new regulations. For these use cases, there are VoIP dynamic location options that allow the enterprise to provision users separately from all potential locations in a building. At call time, the user information is paired with the caller’s current location. It’s that “dynamic” location this is used for both routing and display at the PSAP. 

Improving 911 Location Accuracy

Getting back to my midnight 911 call: first responders were already on their way and, as I suspected, it was just a false alarm. Even had there been a real fire, I could have counted myself lucky. I was able to quickly exit the building. I knew exactly where I was and could communicate my location to the call taker. With many 911 calls, this is not the case, which is why improving emergency location determination may be difficult to overcome but so important. The measurement of success is straightforward enough: it’s arming public safety with enough information so that they never need to ask “where’s your emergency?”

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