Some cellphone calls to 911 are notoriously hard to trace. But now we’re one step closer to a fix.

Today, federal standards help 911 call centers find victims within minutes if they're calling from outdoors or from a landline. In most cases, help arrives on the scene with no complications at all. But for people calling 911 on a cellphone indoors, it's often a different story. Being inside thwarts GPS signals used by cellphones and dispatchers to locate people in an emergency.

The struggle between public safety officials and wireless carriers over how to fix that problem has been contentious. But on Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission announced a breakthrough in developing a plan that everyone can get behind. Consisting of four guidelines, the roadmap puts the country "on track" to improving location accuracy for wireless 911 calls, which account for 70 percent of all calls to 911, according to FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

Key to the guidelines is a requirement that wireless carriers provide 911 dispatchers with the exact floor and room of a caller. The "dispatchable location" requirement is consistent with a current FCC proposal to mandate better location accuracy within the first 30 seconds of a 911 call; under the proposed rules, the dispatcher would have to be able to pinpoint the cellphone caller to within a 50-meter radius on the correct floor, using carrier-provided location data.

The other guidelines lay out in broad terms how to meet that goal. Interim benchmarks will help measure progress as part of a verification requirement. Another guideline requires that whatever rules get written must be technologically neutral, to make sure they won't grow out of date as technology improves. And finally is a guideline acknowledging a flexible timeline.

"We must be honest that this goal could take some time," said Rosenworcel in remarks to the Association of Public Safety Communications Officers in New Orleans.

Both the wireless industry and public safety officials are standing behind the guidelines.

"Commissioner Rosenworcel hit the mark," wrote Meredith Attwell Baker, president of CTIA — which represents wireless carriers — in a blog post. "CTIA and our member companies are committed to a consensus-based solution … based on a dispatchable address using tested and proven technological solutions."

Public safety officials who've criticized industry leaders in the past for dragging their feet are urging swift approval of the guidelines.

"Nothing in the principles or Commissioner Rosenworcel's remarks supported the carriers' goal to delay and weaken the proposed rule, and we hope this clears the path to quickly adopt it as drafted," said Jamie Barnett, a former FCC public safety head who now represents the Find Me 911 Coalition.

On Friday, the FCC is set to vote on a proposal to make sure emergency victims can text 911 for help — a feature that's currently supported only in certain areas and by certain providers.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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Brian Fung · August 7