FCC Sets New Rules to Make Indoor Mobile 911 Calls More Accurate

Emergency calls made on mobile phones inside buildings are tough for 911 systems to locate because of interference from concrete and other materials. New rules aim to fix the problem.

911, cellphones, emergency

New rules to make it easier for 911 emergency responders to get to mobile callers who are dialing from inside buildings have been approved by the Federal Communications Commission, setting a time frame for making the new standards a reality. For years, it has been difficult for emergency responders to accurately locate mobile callers from within buildings due to interference from concrete, steel girders and other building materials.

The new rules, an update to the FCC's Enhanced 911 (E911) regulations, were approved by the FCC on Jan. 29 and will provide timelines for mobile carriers to improve mobile E911 services inside structures.

"Everybody agrees on the problem: When the FCC adopted its original wireless 911 rules in 1996, most wireless usage occurred outdoors," Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC, said in a statement after the vote on new E911 rules. "But times and technology have changed. The vast majority of 911 calls now come from wireless phones, increasingly from indoors."

The problem has created what Wheeler calls a "911 readiness gap" in which "first responders are less able to rapidly and accurately locate a significant percentage of calls for help than they could in previous years."

The new rules will take advantage of technological improvements that will make the process work better, according to the FCC.

"The Commission's E911 rules require wireless providers to automatically transmit to 911 call centers information on the location of wireless 911 callers, within certain parameters for accuracy," according to the agency. The rules were first adopted back in 1996 and underwent their last major revision in 2010.

The rules changes are important because many American households continue today to replace their old landline phone services with wireless phones. About two out of five U.S. households are now relying solely on wireless phones, according to the FCC.

The problem with 911 calls made through mobile phones today is that when calls are made from inside buildings, they can't take advantage of traditional location accuracy technologies, which are optimized for outdoor calling, the agency said.

The updated E911 rules approved by the FCC will help first responders "locate Americans calling for help from indoors, including challenging environments such as large multi-story buildings, where responders are often unable to determine the floor or even the building where the 911 call originated," according to the agency. "The new rules establish clear and measureable timelines for wireless providers to meet indoor location accuracy benchmarks, both for horizontal and vertical location information. The Commission noted that no single technological approach will solve the challenge of indoor location, and no solution can be implemented overnight. The new requirements therefore enable wireless providers to choose the most effective solutions and allow sufficient time for development of applicable standards, establishment of testing mechanisms, and deployment of new location technology."

Back in December 2014, the four major U.S. wireless carriers—Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile—together began work on creating a wireless indoor 911 location road map to together find ways to solve the technical problems that make indoor emergency calls so hard to locate when they come from mobile callers, according to an earlier eWEEK report.

The new indoor mobile 911 road map agreement between the four companies is being used to plan out a strategy, milestones and technical means to find ways of solving the technical problems of locating such calls.

The road map also involves two major public safety organizations, NENA and APCO, to further improve location accuracy for 911 calls, including calls made indoors. NENA is the National Emergency Number Association, while APCO is the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International.

The 17-page road map document calls for the partners to establish a test bed within 12 months to examine new techniques to improve mobile indoor caller location methods and create new standards for services. Among the techniques that could be further implemented are location-based services such as WiFi access points and Bluetooth beacons, which are used in more and more buildings.

One of the aims of the road map, which lists goals over the next four years and beyond, is to find indoor mobile locating methods that can pinpoint a caller's location within about 50 meters, according to the document.