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Wireless 911: A Matter of Life and Death

There's a lot at stake when we dial 911 on our cell phones: the moments between your call and emergency response could be a difference of life or death.  When you dial 911 on your home phone, your address is automatically provided to the emergency dispatcher.  However, when you dial 911 from your cell phone, your location information may not be provided to the dispatcher. 

That's a problem, because now more than 50% of 911 calls are made from cell phones and about one-third of cell phone users bought their phones just for emergencies.  Even more troubling, a 2002 Consumer Reports Survey showed that 15% of the almost 2,000 people surveyed had trouble connecting when they dialed 911 from a cell phone and 4% never got through at all. 

Plan of Action

By order of Congress, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has instituted rules to make sure that wireless 911 tragedies like those listed by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) no longer occur, but there is much more to be done.

The Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999, also called the 911 Act, took effect in October of 1999 and called for the prompt deployment of a nationwide communications infrastructure for emergency response.  The 911 Act directed the FCC to establish 911 as the universal emergency number for all telephone services.  In order to carry out this mandate, the FCC has set forth the following relevant rules for the development of Enhanced, or "E" 911:

  • Phase 1 Deployment: Phase I requires that, when you call 911 from your cell phone, your wireless provider pinpoint your location to the nearest signal tower.  This information isn't terribly accurate, because the nearest tower may not be very close to you.  Phase I was supposed to be completely implemented by April 1998 or upon request by a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) or dispatcher – whichever came first.  ComCARE Alliance (Communications for Coordinated Assistance and Response to Emergencies) in their 911 factsheets that most wireless subscribers are not yet covered by Phase I.  However, Dispatch Monthly reports that according to the Department of Transportation, as of October 2003, 65% of PSAPs have put in place Phase I service.  It also reports that, because of the considerable cost associated with upgrading equipment to meet Phase I standards, a number of wireless providers are choosing to skip Phase I and move straight to Phase II.
  • Phase II Deployment: Phase II requires that, when you call 911 from your cell phone, your wireless provider can determine your exact location (longitude and latitude on a map).  Phase II is supposed to be implemented by December 2005.  Phase II deployment appears to be coming along, though there is a growing gap between states with large communities that are Phase II-ready, and states with small communities that aren't. For the current status of Phase II deployment, see National Emergency Number Association fact sheets. Phase II will be expensive (NENA estimates costs at $8 billion for nationwide deployment), since equipment displays will have to be sophisticated enough to display caller location information. 

E911 deployment efforts will only be minimally useful, however, until proper testing and reporting procedures are established and enforced.  Right now, the FCC requires that providers report on their E911 status and success twice a year.  Unfortunately, many providers are failing to meet this obligation, or denying that the obligation exists at all.  And some providers, concerned with profit, are refusing to provide accurate 911 coverage information. 

How do Emergency Personnel Locate Callers?

Just because you have a voice signal does not mean you can be located by your provider if you dial 911.  For a voice call, you only need one tower to pick up your voice and transmit it.  When you call 911, it is different.  The two methods that providers currently use to locate you are satellite and tower triangulation.  A satellite can provide a more accurate location, but satellites are blocked by bad weather — a common factor in emergencies.  Tower triangulation is less accurate, because providers can only approximate your location by connecting three towers and determining approximately where you are between them.  Triangulation is especially problematic in rural areas, because the towers are placed along the roads, in straight lines, making triangulation difficult or impossible.

Therefore, unless testing and reporting is done on a very regular basis, there is no way for consumers to know that their 911 call will go through during an emergency without actually making a call and seeing if a dispatcher answers…or not.

Who is Working for Change?

Fortunately, the process of providing all cell phone users with enhanced 911 coverage is being prodded along by the efforts of many, including the following:

• Consumers Union wrote to Congress in support of E911 legislation.

• The Congressional 911 Caucus, which is co-chaired by Senator Conrad Burns, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Representative John Shimkus and Representative Anna Eshoo, worked hard to pass legislation which would provide funding and enforce testing and accountability for wireless providers and PSAPs.

• The E911 Institute was formed to support the Congressional 911 Caucus, and to assist in E911 deployment by forming E911 policy discussions and providing information. 

• National Emergency Number Association (NENA), ComCARE, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and other emergency service advocacy groups are getting the word out to the public, to state PSAPs, and to wireless service providers, providing fact sheets and offering technological solutions.

No Funding, No Progress

In December 2004, their efforts, and those of other committed organizations, began to pay off with the passage of HR 5419 – a bill aimed at improving the progress of E911 deployment.  The law, among other things, creates an E911 implementation and coordination office which will help to coordinate the various government, nonprofit and private groups involved in deploying E911 and report to Congress on each year’s progress. A critical component of the law is the authorization of $250 million for a new grant program which will provide much-needed funds to PSAPs – so they can become E911 ready as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, the success of the law is in jeopardy because President Bush’s recent budget proposal did not appropriate any funding for the grant program.  Unless Congress appropriates the funding this important law will be greatly restrained in its ability to make sure that the 911 calls we make from our cell phones are as effective as those we make from home.