Apartment fire

Is the public safety community ready for new 911 location rules?

The Federal Communications Commission is proposing for the first time that cellular carriers begin delivering location information to 911 dispatchers on calls made from inside buildings.

The proposed rules reflect the fact that cell phones now are a primary means of communication and are used for the majority of emergency calls. Current Enhanced 911 (E911) location requirements apply only to outdoor calls, but a growing number of calls are coming from inside buildings.

“We believe the time has come to propose specific measures in our E911 location accuracy rules to ensure accurate indoor location information,” the commissioners wrote in a notice of proposed rulemaking.

The proposed requirements, which would be phased in over five years, include for the first time data on height above ground level, to tell responders what floor the caller is on in a multi-story building. The proposal is also aggressive and  some industry commenters call it unrealistic. There also are questions about the ability of Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) to use the new information.

“There are challenges,” said Bhavin Shah, vice president of marketing and business development for Polaris Wireless. “And the challenges are not just on the carrier side of the house.” PSAPS, the local sites where emergency calls are answered, currently are not equipped to receive and display the new information.

As FCC Chairman Thomas E. Wheeler said in a statement on the proposed rules, “it takes two to tango. Providers will deliver the information, but it will mean little if PSAPs and state and local governments do not take the necessary steps on their part.”

Although FCC has the authority to regulate carriers, it cannot require PSAPS—which are operated by state and local government—to upgrade equipment. The commission is asking for comments on how to encourage PSAPs to adopt the new equipment and processes needed to use the information and on whether the benefits would outweigh the costs.

The proposed rules are the result of testing done in late 2012 on industry’s ability to locate the source of cellular calls from inside buildings. Technology from three companies was tested, and the Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council concluded that although they showed significant promise, they were not yet good enough for emergency responders to rely on.

“Even the best location technologies tested have not proven the ability to consistently identify the specific building and floor,” the report said. “This is not likely to change over the next 12-24 months.”

But FCC decided to push ahead with a rule making in the hope that requirements would spur advances in the technology.

The proposed rules would require carriers to provide horizontal location—the X and Y axis coordinates—to within 50 meters for 67 percent of indoor 911 calls within two years, and for 80 percent within five years. Carriers would have three years to provide vertical location—the Z axis—to within 3 meters in 67 percent of calls, and for 80 percent in five years.

Those numbers still are not good enough for emergency responders to rely on, but “it pushes things in the right direction,” Shah said. His company was one of those included in the 2012 tests. He said that the required accuracy on the X and Y coordinates probably is achievable, but that providing height information on the Z axis will be more difficult.

Even if accurate data can be provided, current formats for sending 911 location information to PSAPS do not support the Z axis, so transmission standards will have to be changed. And although many current PSAP location databases contain fields that could be used for height data, PSAP equipment does not display it.

PSAPs also must have accurate maps that can be integrated with location data to display a caller’s location, and no such maps for building interiors are generally available.

The FCC is seeking comment on whether and how quickly PSAPs could be prepared to receive and use this information and what the costs would be.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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