You’ve just witnessed a terrible incident on the opposite side of a rural highway. Even though you are not involved, you know what to do: call 911. Immediately after pressing those digits you have avoided save circumstances such as this, a voice answers, “911, what is your emergency?” After a chaotic recitation of the traumatic scene you have witnessed, the operator asks the most critical question in his or her dispatch assessment: “What is your location?” You have no idea. Luckily other dutiful citizens seem to have made the same call and given the key information you lacked, but what if no one had the answer?

Most Americans would recall lessons on how and when to call 911 as far back as they can remember—whether from parents, teachers, or other organizations, these instructions came early and often. But those lessons will often prove insufficient in the case one actually has to execute on them. Although the FCC’s rules require wireless service providers to make various disclosures to Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) at the time of a call, the location information may be as inaccurate as 300 meters. (USA Today has a helpful video of how this technology works.) Despite the United States Department of Transportation’s “Next Generation 911” systems initiative, which seeks to take advantage of 21st century technology by enabling the submission of text, photo, and video materials regarding an emergency incident, the odds are good that if you called 911 right now the dispatching operator would not accurately identify your location with the speed necessary in an emergency. As per the 2016 National 911 Progress Report, a mere ten states claimed the ability to process and interpret location information for 100 percent of the state. With its genesis in a concept of operations dating back to December 2005, when can the majority of the population expect to move into this elusive next generation of 911 technologies?

Users and developers alike have been asking this question over the past several years, and in the style of the smart phone age, there’s an app for that! In this disparate application of newer 911 infrastructures, many have turned to pre-existing mobile platforms as a supplement, leading to the emergence of several variations of 911 alternative or enhancement applications meant to be used on a smart phone. Unlike the purely cell-tower-based location provided to 911 dispatchers from wireless providers, the location on these apps runs off of either GPS (as linked to the chip in a phone) or WPS (supplemental wireless server that operates better inside where GPS may not reach). The locations used in these interfaces are much more accurate and akin to (or even pulled from) what a user sees in his or her maps, ridesharing, etc. These apps have become particularly prevalent on university campuses, where a user may hold a button if they feel unsafe and if they subsequently remove that touch without entering a lock code, the app “dispatches police.”  But as the old adage goes, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Not only do these smart phone emergency interfaces raise questions of potential liability and privacy concerns, they also suffer in one fatal flaw: they are inherently not 911 emergency services, and are therefore unable to accurately analyze the situation and dispatch appropriate resources.

While this disconnect will hopefully be advanced in the near future by many states’ pursuit into the NG911 era, in the meantime, some municipalities have partnered with programs that are connected to their 911 emergency services. Although emergency service infrastructure is slower than wireless technology, these systems are one small way you can help yourself before you need 911 to help you.

Greta Messer

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