Years of movies and TV dramas have convinced most of us that the locations from which cellphone calls to 911 are made are easily tracked. We have confidence that in an emergency, with today’s technology, first responders will be able to quickly find us in a time of need. But it’s just not so.
Emergency calls placed from cellphones – especially from indoor locations – are extremely difficult to track. That’s despite the fact that two in every five American homes (41 percent) have only wireless telephones in their households. The FCC itself estimates that about 70 percent of all emergency calls made in the U.S. originate from wireless phones, and that half of those are placed from indoor locations. The percentages will only grow higher as more and more families pull the plug on their landlines.
The survey of more than 1,000 consumers showed that two-thirds of cell phone owners (66 percent) thought that if they call 9-1-1 from inside their homes, wireless companies could help emergency responders locate them, at least to their block. Only 6 percent correctly responded that the information likely would be accurate only to the neighborhood level or even farther afield.
Today, Emergency 911 is a system that works best for landline phones. If someone calling 911 from a landline phone is unable to talk, does not know their location or does not speak the predominant language, 911 dispatchers can immediately determine their location. But if that call comes from a wireless phone, especially if it’s placed indoors – where GPS signals are often obscured – then the chances plummet that dispatchers will find you.
A 2013 study of California National Emergency Number Association data showed that more than half of California’s wireless 911 calls were delivered without location information. The similar results have been found in North Carolina, Utah, Oregon and Texas – not great odds if you can’t communicate and need emergency help.
To its credit, the FCC has recognized this growing problem. After hearings and deliberating about this the urgent need, the FCC earlier this year proposed wireless phone indoor location accuracy requirements that would dramatically improve this critical public safety problem and bring E911 systems up to 21st century standards. The FCC estimates that the new rules would save 10,000 lives a year and proposed that wireless carriers would have to implement them within two years of the new rules being adopted.
But that’s when opponents of the new rules, the wireless carriers, stepped in and mounted a well-funded campaign to, among other things, push back the implementation date – from two years to 10 years. Yes, carriers would delay these life-saving upgrades until 2024 at the earliest!
Our organization, Consumer Action, uses multilingual financial education materials, community outreach and issue-focused advocacy to empower underrepresented consumers nationwide to assert their rights in the marketplace and financially prosper. On behalf of consumers, we have strongly urged the FCC to proceed with adoption of their proposed rules, very much including implementing them in two years.
It’s important because in emergency situations, having the correct location information can literally make the difference between life and death. There’s also the fact that consumers are unfairly forced to pay high fees every month to carriers for 911 services that essentially don’t work for them where it’s most needed – in their homes. That includes the most economically disadvantaged among us: the survey commissioned by the Find Me 911 Coalition found that more than half (54.3 percent) of adults living in poverty live in wireless-only households, and nearly 46 percent of those living at near poverty levels live in households with only wireless telephones.
We urge the FCC to stay the course, implementing its proposed rules in two years, not ten. That’s because in today’s 21st century technology world, it’s simply unacceptable that Americans using wireless phones in times of emergency cannot rely on their phones to provide accurate indoor location information.
McEldowney is executive director of Consumer Action, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization empowering low- and moderate-income and limited-English-speaking consumers nationwide to financially prosper through education and advocacy.