The District is using new technology to more precisely pinpoint the location of people who use smartphones to call 911, a shift aimed at getting first responders to emergencies as quickly as possible.
City officials joined with a company called RapidSOS that has helped police and fire departments across the country overcome a critical gap in responding to calls: the inability of modern phones to communicate location data to 911 systems built when people talked only over wires.
It’s a problem because more than 80 percent of the calls to the nation’s 911 centers are from cellphones. That mirrors the District, which fields up to 3,500 911 calls a day.
It may seem strange in this modern era that a person with a smartphone can track the movements of friends or get alerts from retailers as they pass near a display window but that the technology used to find you if you suffer a heart attack might be accurate to only the nearest half-mile.
“If I can push a button and get an Uber, why can’t I push a button and get the police?” said Michael Martin, the CEO and founder of RapidSOS, based in New York.
His company is working in 2,500 emergency call centers across the country, including Fairfax County, Va., and others in the Washington area. Martin makes the product free to local governments.
“It’s a very big step to solving what has been a bane of an issue,” said Steve McMurrer, the 911 systems administrator in Fairfax County. Added Karima Holmes, director of the D.C. Office of Unified Communications: “It saves precious seconds and allows us to get help to the caller as quickly as possible.”
The problem has existed since the time smartphones came out, and carriers and 911 centers — many like the District’s, built with 50-year-old technology — need upgrades. Existing systems use cellphone hits from multiple towers to estimate where a phone is located, but the results are spotty. RapidSOS works directly with 911 centers and carriers such as Apple, Google and Android to pump location data from phones directly into the emergency call centers.
The Federal Communications Commission estimated in 2013 that precise location data could save as many as 10,000 lives a year, and put in place several benchmarks for cellphone carriers to meet to ensure information could be transferred to 911 centers. Carriers have until 2021 to make sure locations can be transmitted to within 50 yards 80 percent of the time. In 2014, the District found that of 385,341 wireless calls to 911 in six months, accurate location data was available for only 39,805 of them.
Meanwhile, 911 centers are transferring from land-based to wireless. The District has completed much of its upgrade, and as a result, RapidSOS could be integrated into its system. The District is implementing what is called Next Generation 911, which allows people to text in emergencies and provides first responders with more information about buildings and patients as they head to calls.
Once systems are upgraded by phone carriers and 911 centers, RapidSOS will no longer be needed. Until then, the company fills the technology divide.
Holmes said that about one-quarter of the people who call 911 on cellphones do not know precisely where they are. They might know the street but not the address, or a cross street, or might think they’re in Northeast when they’re in Northwest Washington.
McMurrer said shoppers who frequent malls such as Tysons Corner most likely do not know the shopping center’s address. Before RapidSOS, a caller’s location might show up in the center of the mall, or in the parking lot close to the road. Now, he said a dispatcher can narrow it to a few feet.
Martin, the head of RapidSOS, said there are about 6,300 emergency call centers across the country, using thousands of different software programs. He said many 911 systems are so old that the data that can be handled by one call is less than what was needed to send a telegram more than 150 years ago.
“It’s a very difficult process to integrate this new technology with antiquated infrastructure,” said Martin, who got the idea for his company after he was mugged walking home from work in New York City.
McMurrer, the emergency call center’s administrator in Fairfax County, said his jurisdiction has been using RapidSOS for the past nine months and is pleased with the results. He called it a supplement or patch that can be used until 911 centers and carriers are fully integrated with accurate location data. Efforts to integrate, he said, have not kept up with technological advances in everyday smartphones.
“It’s a great insurance,” McMurrer said of the company’s product. He said the FCC benchmarks for carriers to deliver accurate location data “don’t meet the standard of precision” that a 911 center needs. Fairfax County receives more than 1 million 911 calls each year, about 82 percent from cellphones.