Android Feature Helps Pinpoint Mobile User Locations in Emergencies

Google introduced an optional Android feature designed to give first responders more accurate location data for mobile users who report emergencies.

Android User Locator 2

One of the major drawbacks of using a mobile phone to call emergency services is that first responders often have a hard time pinpointing the caller’s exact location.

Google hopes to address this issue with a new optional feature that could make it easier for first responders to locate Android mobile device users in emergency situations.

The new Emergency Location Service in Android sends enhanced location data from a user’s phone to emergency services when a user dials an emergency number.

According to Google, the feature takes advantage of the WiFi, GPS and cell tower data used by applications on a mobile phone to transmit more accurate location data both indoors and outdoors for emergency service responders.

The new feature is designed solely for use by first responders and never will be available to Google, said Akshay Kannan, Google product manager, on the company’s Europe Blog. "It is sent from your handset to emergency services only when you explicitly place an emergency call, either directly or through your mobile network," he said.

The Emergency Location Service feature is supported on more than 99 percent of installed Android devices and is available wherever a mobile carrier or network service provider supports the capability.

The service is currently available for Android phone users in the U.K. and in Estonia. Google collaborated with multiple mobile network service providers and emergency service providers in these countries to make the feature available, Kannan said. He did not elaborate on why Google decided to introduce the service in these two countries first.

The Emergency Location Service option gradually will be made available in other countries as well, he said. The company is currently working with network operators and emergency infrastructure providers in multiple countries to make the service more widely available.

In response to a question from eWEEK, a Google spokeswoman said the company is currently working with network operators in the United States to make the service available in the "near future."

"But we don't have a specific timeline to share at the moment," she said.

With a growing proportion of calls to emergency services originating from mobile phones these days, accurate location information has become increasingly critical.

Currently, when calls are made to an emergency service via a mobile phone or tablet, responders typically have to rely on cell tower location, which often is not specific enough, or assisted GPS, which often is unreliable indoors, according to Kannan.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last year adopted new rules requiring wireless service providers to ensure that 911 call centers can locate a wireless caller to within 50 meters of their indoor or outdoor location within 30 seconds of receiving a call.

The so-called "Wireless E911 Location Accuracy Requirements" rules require service providers to provide the capability for at least 40 percent of wireless 911 calls in 2017 and 80 percent by the end of 2020.

"The value of improving the response time for calls made via wireless E911 response is real and calculable," the FCC has noted. "Using rough but reasonable assumptions, it can be estimated that improved location accuracy, which results in reducing wireless E911 response time by one minute, can result in saving over 10,000 lives annually."

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.