By Scott Freitag
A fast-moving blizzard last winter in rural Wisconsin caught residents by surprise, including two individuals in a car who decided it was safer to walk home through a field than continue driving in zero visibility.
They were without adequate winter wear, maybe figuring it would be a short trip, but they were carrying cell phones and called 9-1-1 when they lost their way.
I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced a winter whiteout, but that’s what they were battling. There was no visible horizon; they couldn’t see which way was forward to home or their way back to the car. They risked losing sight of one another, even when walking side-by-side.
The responder sent to find them had no less trouble, although he was better dressed. He stayed in contact with the dispatcher and eventually found the two stranded in the field—and it wasn’t any time too soon. They were dangerously close to hypothermia and frostbite.
In Florida, responders spent 45 minutes looking for a hunter who was critically injured in a fall from a tree. Another search in Florida to find a man suffering serious injuries in an ATV accident consumed nearly an hour of response time.
What is the piece tying these incidents together or, more aptly, causing distress in the chain starting from the point when the call was placed?
Yes, each occurred outdoors and despite rural or relatively remote locations, callers were able to connect with 9-1-1, but without the satisfaction of moving EMS straightaway to the scene because of the disconnect between wireless carriers and the public safety community.
The issue has received national press.
Data recently released by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—and analyzed by the Find Me 911 coalition—shows that more than one-third of all calls received by 9-1-1 centers in Utah from wireless phones in June 2013 did not include the accurate location information necessary to find a caller in crisis.
The survey does not single out Utah. For example, more than two-thirds of the calls to 9-1-1 communication centers in Texas from wireless phones do not include accurate location information.
Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) are not receiving accurate caller location information, despite FCC Phase II rules requiring wireless providers to provide the latitude and longitude of a caller within 50 to 300 meters—depending on the technology used. The FCC standards apply to outdoor measurements.
A ruling, as we know, doesn’t automatically solve a problem.
You can’t find the needles lost in the haystack when the center is getting Phase I location data—the location of the caller’s cell tower—rather than Phase II data that provides the caller’s location within the FCC outdoor measurements rule.
That’s the issue facing Utah. The communication centers receive Phase I data showing the location of the cell tower from which the call originated, and the large area covered makes it difficult for responders to find them. But the blame doesn’t rest within the respective states.
There’s also a kink in the system.
PSAPs can query their Automatic Location Information (ALI) to pull the Phase II location information from a carrier’s Global Mobile Location Center (GMLC). Sometimes the Phase II location data isn’t readily available and, when that happens, dispatchers can refresh (called a rebid) the location data to get the desired results.
Dispatchers don’t always have the time to refresh the data while juggling everything else. So, is it a matter of multiple and conflicting responsibilities on the dispatcher’s side or the carrier’s failure to grasp the urgency of confirming location to the benefit of the caller and responders?
And what happens when the caller can’t give a location?
According to a Find Me 911 survey of dispatchers and PSAP managers (April 2014), 97 percent reported that they had answered at least one wireless 9-1-1 call within the last year from someone who could not designate his or her whereabouts. Maybe the caller is lost (whiteout conditions), critically injured and incoherent (falling from tree), or disoriented due to confusion or age-related illness.
The outdoor 9-1-1 locator difficulties, however, are the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Indoor location accuracy is a major public safety concern and in February, when the FCC released a proposal pushing location accuracy, FCC Tom Wheeler reminded wireless carriers that the goal is necessary – and realistic – considering “the safety of the American people” in emergency situations at stake.
It’s imperative this happens—indoors and outdoors—and it’s a goal that we should never consider out of our reach.
Editor’s Note: For a discussion on the indoor 9-1-1 locator issue, visit ‘A Serious Public Safety Problem,” www.iaedjournal.org/content/serious-public-safety-problem in this issue of The Journal.