New 911 System Could Get You Help Faster

GPS shows dispatchers your location

  • AT&T is launching a new emergency calls system that could bring faster help. 
  • The system uses a device’s GPS location to route calls. 
  •  The nation’s largest wireless carriers are expected to deliver vertical location in addition to latitude and longitude for 911 starting this year, 
Person using a phone near a car in a snow ditch

Jasmin Merdan / Getty Images

Rescuers will soon be able to pinpoint your whereabouts in an emergency more quickly, thanks to a new location-based routing system for mobile phones. 

AT&T is the first carrier in the US to launch the system nationally for emergency calls. It’s designed to transmit wireless 911 calls to the appropriate 911 call centers based on a device's GPS location.

"This means when people call 911 from their wireless device, emergency services can locate the call faster and more accurately and route it to the appropriate 911 call center for emergency response," Joe Marx, AT&T’s assistant vice president for federal regulatory external and legislative affairs told Lifewire in an email interview. "With location-based routing, a wireless call can be located and routed within 50 meters of the device location."

Quicker Rescues

Traditionally, emergency calls were routed based on the location of cell towers, which can cover up to a 10-mile radius, Marx said. This older system can cause delays in emergency response, especially when a call is made within border areas where state, county, or city boundaries overlap.

"The distance 911 calls can be located and routed is up to 176 football fields, and location-based routing brings that down to about half a football field," Marx said. "For the general consumer, they won’t notice a difference when location-based routing is deployed. However, when an emergency happens and they call 911, the technology behind the scenes will work faster and more accurately than the previous technology."

Man using a phone near an ambulance

Massimo Merlini / Getty Images

Marx said that there’s an urgent need for better 911 calling services for mobile phones. Today, 68% of adults don’t have a landline in their homes, according to the CDC. When AT&T worked with the FCC to establish the first 911 systems over 50 years ago, communication landline phones dominated the market. However, according to one study, 80% of 911 calls now come from a mobile device.

AT&T says the nationwide rollout is scheduled to be completed by July. The company isn’t the only carrier to have launched a location-based 911 system. T-Mobile, for example, rolled out a similar approach on a regional level. T-Mobile says some areas with the new technology have experienced up to 40 percent fewer call transfers.

"Our advanced LTE and nationwide 5G network positions us better than any other operator to quickly and more accurately deliver emergency calls to Next Generation 911 systems," Neville Ray, the president of technology at T-Mobile, said in a news release. "And that, simply stated, will make people safer."

This mandate will help locate callers in an emergency by determining their correct altitude or floor level.

Most carriers currently route 911 calls based on cell tower location. But Dan Hight, the vice president of business development and partnerships of the navigation company NextNav, told Lifewire via email that the current method "can be very coarse," and calls often get routed to the wrong Public Safety Access Point (PSAP). "This new system allows for routing based on the x/y location of the 911 call when it is placed, rather than the cell tower location, and results in the caller being potentially routed to a closer PSAP," he added. 

In a news release, Kurt Mills, the executive director of the 911 service in Snohomish County, WA, said that his agency has been testing the new system. "We share a busy border with King County and are thrilled with the significant decrease in 911 transfers," Mills said. "We know that 911 transfers delay emergency response, and the winner here is our community." 

The Future of Emergency Response

Mobile routing systems could soon get even more accurate. The FCC expects the nation’s largest wireless carriers to deliver vertical location in addition to latitude and longitude for 911 starting this year, said Hight, whose company is working on technology to enable the new system. 

"This mandate will help locate callers in an emergency by determining their correct altitude or floor level," Hight said. "In some tests done by public safety, this technology has been shown to improve response times by over 80%."

Another potentially game-changing innovation is known as Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) technology. The system improves the precision of GPS  by measuring the arrival time of millimeter-wave signals coming from the handset. 

"RTK technologies are evolving, and RTK networks are expanding across the country, lending even more possibilities as people explore ways to utilize these technologies while minimizing the drain on the batteries in devices," Marx said.

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