FCC Looks to Improve 911 Dispatchable Location for EMS Providers

FCC Works to Ensure Direct Access to 911

Until recently, the ability to place a 911 call from a hotel, business or school without first connecting to an outside line was determined by the individual property owner or phone company. The inconsistency in fast access to emergency services was brought to national attention when a child in Texas tried to call for help while her mother was attacked in a hotel room. Unfortunately, since the child did not know to dial "9" first, her call was never connected to 911.

To ensure easier access to 911, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai launched a national inquiry into the lodging industry and found that up to 68% of independently owned hotels and 55% of franchised hotels did not have direct 911 access. The American Hotel and Lodging Association has since made an industry-wide recommendation to allow 911 calls without needing to connect to an outside line, and major hotel chains have been fast to respond. The Wyndham Hotel Group now reports that all of their properties meet the recommendation, and Hyatt will meet it soon.

To provide immediate 911 access in businesses and schools, Commissioner Pai reached out to national companies that supply multi-line telephone systems (MLTS) and services to examine the ability for these products to remove the outside line barrier when calling 911. Numerous MLTS companies have agreed to set direct 911 calling as the default setting or offered their customers complimentary software upgrades to make this phone setting possible.

Just last month in Texas, where the hotel tragedy took place, Governor Greg Abbott signed Kari's Law, which connects callers to 911 directly, without first dialing a "9," in all hotels and businesses. The FCC will continue to work with stakeholders across the country to ensure that anyone in need of emergency services in any hotel, business or school, can access help by dialing 911.

With an increase in wireless phone use and the public's use of cell phones indoors, accurately identifying the location of 911 callers continues to be a challenge for 911 call takers and first responders. Precise caller location is more challenging to obtain when 911 calls are made indoors from a wireless phone, especially in large buildings and other urban structures, where traditional 911 call location technologies optimized for outdoor calling often do not work effectively or at all.

In an effort to help responders better locate indoor 911 callers, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a set of rules in January that update the current Commission's Enhanced 911 (E911) rules. The updated rules respond to the increasing number of indoor wireless 911 calls, and will take advantage of recent advances in location technology to improve the accuracy of indoor 911 call location information.

The new rules require wireless providers to meet new and more rigorous location accuracy benchmarks for increasing percentages of wireless 911 calls over the next two to six years. They are also intended to provide first responders not only with horizontal coordinates to identify the building from which a call originates, but also vertical location for calls that come from multi-story buildings, and - if possible - the room, apartment or suite where the caller is located.

"With current wireless 911 calls from indoor locations, first responders may know which building to enter, but not necessarily which door to knock on," said Dana Zelman, an attorney advisor with the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau of the FCC.

The Commission refers to accurate identification of which door to knock on as a "dispatchable location," defined as "the verified or corroborated street address of the calling party plus additional information such as floor, suite, apartment or similar information that may be needed to adequately identify the location of the calling party." The goal of providing dispatchable location is to enable EMS and other first responders to reach indoor 911 callers quickly without having to spend precious minutes or even hours searching a building for the person in need of help.

The new rules allow wireless carriers to decide on what technology or combination of technologies will best meet the new requirements. "How the carriers will implement dispatchable location will likely be through a combination of existing technology and new technologies that will increase the density of location reference points that they currently have," said Zelman. "Improvements in satellite technology and other forms of cell tower location will be implemented as well."

Wireless providers will be required to demonstrate the effectiveness of the location technologies they use through testing in an independently administered test bed. In addition, wireless providers will have to show that they are meeting the FCC's requirements by reporting live 911 call data from six key markets that are generally representative of rural, suburban, and urban geographies nationwide and have significant yet varied 911 call volumes: Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, Atlanta and Manhattan. Providers will supply this data on a regular basis to serve as a check on the certification filed with the Commission. Providers must begin reporting this live 911 call data to the Commission starting in April 2017.

With respect to vertical location of 911 calls, beginning in three years, wireless carriers will be required to report uncompensated barometric pressure readings from phones that are capable of generating such readings (many smartphones already have built-in barometric sensors). Within six years, the FCC will adopt and implement a standard for correlating barometric data to building floor level.

The new rules went into effect on April 3, 2015. The FCC developed these rules based on extensive input from stakeholders, including public safety organizations, wireless providers, technology vendors, state and local governments, and public interest groups. The FCC is monitoring the progress of the carriers and will be actively involved as the rules are implemented over the course of the next few years.

Review the FCC's announcement of the new rules here.