FCC Commissioners on Friday fiercely debated the merits of requiring carriers to supply vertical or “Z-Axis” information with 911 calls; the object is to help first responders locate those who call 911 from wireless phones in multi-story buildings.
They voted for an Order to adopt a Z-Axis location accuracy metric of plus or minus three meters relative to the handset for 80 percent of indoor wireless 911 calls. This metric—within three meters above or below the phone—will more accurately identify the floor level for most 911 calls.
It’s achievable now and keeps the deployment of vertical location information to public safety officials on schedule, according to supporters.
Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said the challenges of locating emergency callers is significant. During the meeting, he used the 10-story FCC building as an example. “If I were to call 911 now and unable to give my location in the building, firefighters would need to conduct a floor-by-floor search. In practical terms, that search could take 15 minutes,” he said. “For someone having a stroke, this could take even longer and would likely be fatal,” Schaitberger emphasized.
“Adopting a three meter metric here today will provide a real substantial improvement in search effectiveness in multistory structures, even without a precise floor number. The Commission’s proposal will also help protect firefighters as they conduct dangerous search and rescue operations,” continued Schaitberger. “The same technology that allows public safety to allow the vertical location of a caller in distress will also help locate found rescuers. By effectively protecting the public, we need to also protect the firefighters and emergency medical responders with a duty to respond.”
Other public safety groups that support the item include the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Association of State EMS Officials, the National Sheriffs’ Association, NENA: The 911 Association, and the National Association of State 911 Administrators.
Notably, APCO, which stands for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, opposed it, saying the changes the FCC wants won’t produce meaningful improvements and will let wireless carriers “continue to avoid pursuing much better options for 911 location accuracy.” The Z-Axis format specified in the item is, “Height Above Ellipsoid” (HAE), a raw technical format for altitude, according to APCO in a blog last week.
“While trying to save a life, the 911 dispatcher would receive something like ‘101 Main Street; 76 meters, +/- 3 meters HAE’ instead of ‘101 Main Street, 7th floor’ or ‘101 Main Street, Apt. 702.’ When someone’s life is at stake, there is no question about which kind of information would be more effective. The largest 911 centers in the country have said that even they don’t have the resources to turn ‘HAE’ data into actionable information because it would require significant time and money to create and maintain 3D maps for the millions of buildings across the country, and then specialized software to translate the HAE readings onto the maps,” said APCO.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel was the only dissenting vote; she approved the privacy concerns in the NPRM but not the rest of it. “Ultimately, we missed the mark, because the information we require is simply not in a format that is presently useful for those who take our 911 calls.” 911 operators and first responders should be able to determine a caller’s location in a multi-story building, “without breaking out a tape measure,” she said.
The agency said the action builds on its efforts that mandate that wireless carriers to transmit 911 location information — such as street address and apartment number, or coordinate-based vertical location — to 911 call centers. Carriers would need to begin implementing the changes on a phased-in basis beginning in April 2021.
Given that vertical location technology will continue to improve, the Commission also seeks comment on establishing a long-term timeline for even more stringent vertical location accuracy, including requiring wireless providers to deliver the caller’s specific floor level.
By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief
November 25, 2019
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