Worrying About E9-1-1 Location Misses the Point

February 10, 2014

Todd Piett

UPDATE: Since the initial publishing of this blog, the FCC has issued proposed requirements for indoor location that include z-axis.  There has been widespread debate about the technical feasibility of such an aggressive timeline but it is great to see recognition of the issue: http://www.fcc.gov/document/proposes-new-indoor-requirements-and-revisions-existing-e911-rules

Dispatching isn’t about location, it’s about getting resources to the incident as quickly as possible.  We recently had a situation where Smart911 was instrumental in helping save an individual that was unable to communicate their location.  In itself this is not an unusual use case for our service, in fact we recently had a call from an individual living in a rural area where simply providing the home address for a mobile caller turned out to be the difference between life and death (see post here about the FCC location accuracy requirements and why it is not uncommon to get poor E911 location in rural areas), but the fact that the individual lived in a more urban environment and had provided detailed instructions about how to get to his apartment got me thinking.

The picture below shows our old New York City office.  The red circle represents a “3-D” 15m accurate location bid.  Clearly today we don’t get any indication of the vertical axis, but even allowing for a z-reading you can see the difficulty in locating a non-communicative caller.  What you may not be able to easily see is that that circle actually overlays two different buildings with separate entrances.  In fact, a typical 25m hit would have covered 3 separate entrances.  What you definitely can’t see is the complexity of entrances and stairwells inside the building.  The fourth floor for example is (if I remember correctly) actually accessed via a private stairway in the third floor.  Imagine the time lost getting to a caller when you start in the wrong building, then eventually get in the right building to start guessing floors, and only to find the floor you actually want to get to is inaccessible.


This is not a hypothetical situation.  Late last year a heroic NYC Fire Dispatcher stayed on line with a stroke victim for nearly 8 hours trying to get responders to the callers location (http://pix11.com/2013/06/16/fdny-dispatcher-stays-on-the-phone-for-eight-hours-to-help-a-stroke-victim/#ixzz2swr1rkfJ ).  The E9-1-1 call location showed the address as East 71st Street, while in reality she was on the other side of the wall at East 72nd Street.  Given that stroke is an extremely time sensitive disease process, this delay no doubt negatively impacted this person’s morbidity / quality of life.  And remember, the “accuracy” might have been within a few meters and yet still did not provide a useful address.

What’s my point?  Lately we’ve become very focused on improving location accuracy.  The real need is to improve the ability to get resources to the caller quicker – that involves using improved wireless location-based services, but also things like keeping accurate floor and access instructions up to date and available, as well as providing the call taker with the home and work address associated with a given phone number and access instructions.  Let’s not solve an issue only to find it really didn’t fully address the problem.

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