FCC moves to automatically locate 911 callers

Federal regulators are rolling out new rules to require wireless service companies to automatically locate people in an emergency.

New rules unanimously approved by the five-member Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday would set additional federal standards for companies to help emergency responders find people who dial 911.

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“Whoever you are and wherever you are calling from, 911 has to work,” FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, said during an open meeting on Thursday.

Currently, emergency responders can locate people who dial 911 from a landline, and federal rules exist requiring carriers to locate people who call for help from their cellphones out of doors. But inside, no current standards exist, which the regulators said is a tragic disconnect that prevents people from getting help when they need it most.

“This gap is unacceptable,” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said at Thursday’s meeting. “It does not reflect the way we reach out for help in our moment of need today.”

New rules will require not just that people dialing 911 can be located even when they’re indoors, it also includes metrics to find them vertically — a critical asset for responders trying to find people somewhere in tall buildings.

Last year, the nation’s four biggest wireless companies — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — proposed a voluntary roadmap to locate 911 callers.

The new rules would go above that by setting a timetable for companies to comply with the new standards in coming years.

Some critics of the new move have worried that requiring companies be able to track someone’s location could expose people to new privacy risks.

Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, a Republican who voted for the rule, nonetheless expressed fear that the technology “could be used by government agencies to pinpoint the location of law-abiding Americans.”

He said that robust oversight of the way companies use that data should prevent the government from growing new surveillance powers.