For 9-1-1 system, location is everything

This week marks the sixth anniversary of my wife’s murder. In 2008, my wife Denise was kidnapped from our Florida home while watching our two young children.  During the hours that followed, she was able to use the abductor's mobile phone to call 911 and stay on the line for six minutes– an act than should have saved her life. Tragically, the 911 system failed her when the dispatcher was not able to identify her location. Two days after her disappearance, she was found murdered and buried in a shallow grave.

In the six years since Denise’s death, I have made it my life’s work to honor her memory, and to do everything in my power to prevent tragedies like ours from happening again. I launched the Denise Amber Lee Foundation in June 2008. Thanks to an outpouring of community support and national attention, we have made considerable progress since Denise’s death. Unfortunately though, much needed changes to the nation’s 911 system – changes that are technologically feasible and available – have yet to become a requirement.

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Today, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet will hold a hearing titled, “Locating 911 Callers in a Wireless World,” which will “focus on the unique location accuracy issues associated with calling 911 from wireless phones,” according to a hearing announcement.

So we’re making progress. But there is still more to do.

Seventy percent of all 911 calls are being placed from wireless phones, and it’s estimated that at least 50 percent of these calls originate from indoor locations where the ability for 911 operators to determine the call’s origin can be compromised. And with more and more families giving up their landlines, people are becoming even more reliant on wireless phones during emergencies.

And yet, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has not required location identification for mobile calls placed indoors. The current FCC emergency 911 (E-911) location accuracy requirements for mobile phones only apply to calls originating outside.

This means that many wireless 911 calls do not transmit reliable information about a caller’s location – crucial information in situations where every second counts. In emergencies, callers may not know where they are. They may have injuries preventing them from speaking their location. Enabling technology that reliably transmits an accurate location to first responders can literally mean the difference between life and death.

When my wife was abducted, she brilliantly managed to make the 911 call without the kidnapper’s knowledge and carry on a six-minute conversation laced with clues. I know in my heart that she thought, as I would have at the time, that the call could be traced if she just kept the line open long enough and that police would be able to find and save her. 

Our story led me to Washington, D.C. in November to attend a day-long FCC meeting on wireless 911 location information. It’s encouraging that meetings like this one are happening. Even more encouraging were comments at the meeting by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who described himself as a longtime advocate for improved 911 location information and urged the wireless carriers to work closely with 911 professionals to overcome obstacles to solving this critically important problem.

Today, technologies that would reliably locate indoor emergency calls are fully operational. Other promising technologies are in development. Some of the existing technology works without any modifications to mobile phone hardware or software. And, it works on any mobile phone, even the most basic devices.

While these technologies are available, they are not used, in part, because they are not required. Federal regulations governing the E-911 system need to be updated to better reflect today’s widespread use of mobile phones and available technologies.

The FCC must act now to establish accurate location standards for all calls, from all phones placed to 911, so that no other family is faced with needless suffering that could have been prevented by existing technologies. And while technologies will continue to evolve and become more precise, we should not let a desire for a future, perfect technology stand in the way of saving more lives right now.

Lee is with the Denise Amber Lee Foundation.