Senate Dems push for rule locating 911 calls

Senate Democrats are calling for new regulations allowing emergency responders to pinpoint the location of all 911 calls made via cellphone.

Lawmakers and public safety advocates spoke up at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on Thursday to criticize gaps in 911 service that make it harder for police, fire fighters and ambulances to show up at the scene of an emergency and save lives.

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“It’s time for an upgrade and it’s time that we recognize that there are just too many stories affecting too many individuals that have led all too often to unnecessary suffering,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), chairman of the Communications, Technology and Internet subcommittee. “We need the ability to fix this.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires 911 calls from landline phones to be electronically located. Because of those rules, emergency officials are able to find people in a timely manner even if they the caller loses consciousness or cannot clearly explain where they are.

But the same set of rules don’t exist for wireless phones, which now account for about 70 percent of 911 calls. Though emergency responders are required to locate callers outdoors, there are no standards on indoor calls, where callers can be more difficult to locate.

That’s an omission that can leave people stranded for hours while emergency responders look for them, critics say.

Some lawmakers say that the FCC should issue new regulations to make it easier to find those people.  

“Sometimes rules are a good thing. I happen to believe that a formal rule-making process is appropriate and is necessary in this area,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who joined Pryor in the call for new rules at the hearing.

Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who sit on the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Communications and Technology, also support the creation of a new rule. They sent a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler late on Wednesday saying that the commission had the "necessary information" to begin writing a new rule.

Some members of the FCC agree they need to get involved.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, wrote in The Hill this week that existing policies “are not built for the modern wireless era.”

“We must make this a priority,” she wrote. “If you are faced with an emergency and dial 911 on your wireless phone, no matter where you are — indoors or outdoors — you want first responders to find you quickly.”

But not everyone is convinced.

Republicans on the Senate subcommittee worried Thursday that new regulations would demand more from companies than current technology would allow.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said he was concerned that the FCC’s potential rules could “outstrip reasonable advances in technology.”

An executive with the wireless trade group CTIA, Christopher Guttman-McCabe, told lawmakers that new rules could leave businesses in the lurch.

“I do want us to be cautious about having an FCC process get ahead of the actual technology capabilities,” he said. Instead, he wanted the FCC to continue with a collaborative process to push technical development in the right direction.

Trey Forgety, head of government affairs with the National Emergency Number Association, disagreed. The FCC’s inaction may actually be preventing new advancements, he said, because companies did not want to invest money in technology that might not meet future rules.

The FCC should act now, he said, to save lives while it can.

“We don’t want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” he said.