New FCC data shows that around nine out of ten wireless 911 calls made in Washington, D.C., in the first half of 2013 were delivered without the most precise location information needed for dispatchers and first responders to find callers.
According to the data, which was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Find Me 911 Coalition, a public interest group, only 10.3 percent of the wireless calls made to the D.C. Office of Unified Communications from December 2012 to July 2013 included the latitude-longitude needed to find a caller. Of the 385,341 wireless calls made over that period, just 39,805 had that more accurate information, while the remaining calls only showed the nearest cell tower.
In industry jargon, Phase I location data shows the nearest cell tower, while Phase II location data includes the latitude and longitude of a caller. Phase I data could give first responders the general location of a 911 caller but without the more accurate Phase II data they might not be able to locate the person immediately.
The Find Me 911 Coalition is headed by Jamie Barnett, a former chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. The group represents 911 operators and first responders, including emergency medical services personnel, fire fighters and police.
According to the data, Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) fared the best in providing Phase II location information, at 24.6 percent of the time, with Sprint (NYSE: S) not far behind at 23.3 percent. T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) at 3.2 percent and AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) at 2.6 percent fared the worst.
"These results reveal an alarming public safety crisis," Barnett said in a statement. "When nine in ten 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. Thankfully, the FCC has proposed a strong new rule to help find wireless callers in need, both indoors and outdoors, and this should eliminate any doubt about the importance of rapid adoption of that rule."
911 dispatchers can get Phase II data using a phone's GPS chipset, but that data can take time to come in if there is not a direct line of sight to a GPS satellite. Often, however, first responders cannot wait for that signal to improve if it is weak, Barnett told the Washington Post. "When you talk to those folks, you can really tell that they are upset about this," he said. "They are having people die on the phone because they can't find them."
Wireless carriers argue that the data showing poor rates of sending Phase II location data do not account for what is known as "re-bids," or when 911 operators need to refresh the location data they have in order to get the best results, though that takes more time. If the re-bids were included, the Phase II numbers would look better, carriers have argued. AT&T, for instance, has said it actually provides Phase II location data 99 percent of the time, but that it can take 30 seconds or longer to do so because of re-bids.
"When we raised the issue of re-bids in California, a lot of people were scratching their heads--only to find out that the state had implemented a policy saying, don't rebid," an unnamed wireless industry official who requested anonymity told the Post.
It's unclear whether D.C. dispatchers perform re-bids; the Office of Unified Communications, which oversees calls to 911, didn't respond to inquiries on the topic, the Post said.
As the Post notes, the FCC has proposed new rules that would require carriers to provide location data accurate to 50 meters within 30 seconds of a dispatcher picking up a 911 call. If those rules are ultimately approved, 80 percent of all cell phone calls to 911 would have to satisfy that rule.
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