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When a caller dials 911, the public safety answering point (PSAP) call-taker on the other end of the line must quickly determine the caller's location. This process is fraught with uncertainties – if the caller can't breathe, is in an unfamiliar place, or is experiencing a traumatic or violent event, he or she may not be able to provide their location information. Over the last two decades, consumers have moved away from landline devices to wireless phones. This migration has made the process of determining a caller's location even more difficult because the devices are mobile. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been working to address the issue of identifying caller location through a Wireless E911 Location Accuracy Requirements rulemaking. 

The rules adopted in the E911 Location Accuracy proceeding will require wireless carriers to deliver location information to 911 call centers. The rules allow carriers to comply through two avenues. Carriers can either provide call centers with:  

  • coordinate-based information – known as horizontal and vertical location accuracy, or 

  • dispatchable location, which means the caller's street address, and additional information such as room number, floor number, or similar information necessary to adequately identify their location 

In 2015, the FCC adopted its Fourth Report and Order, which requires the carriers to deliver the horizontal location of wireless 911 callers within +/- 50-meter accuracy. Late last year, the FCC adopted its Fifth Report and Order, which established a vertical location accuracy metric of +/- 3 meters. According to these rules, carriers must deliver vertical location information for 80% of calls from capable handsets in the top 25 metropolitan areas by April 2021 and the top 50 metropolitan areas by April 2023. 

Public safety groups urged the agency to consider narrowing the metric from +/- 3 meters (approximately 10 feet of accuracy) to +/- 2 meters in its most recent round of rules, which were adopted last week. Although the FCC declined to narrow the metric, for now, its new rules require wireless carriers to deploy location accuracy technologies nationwide by April 2025. These new rules mean that 911 call-takers will receive the vertical location of callers anywhere in the United States in a matter of a few years. 

While the carriers can opt to provide a dispatchable location in lieu of coordinate-based information, there is a very narrow window of time before they must be in compliance with the FCC's rules. The carriers are working to pinpoint solutions for dispatchable location solutions. However, these solutions have not been formally tested. Nonetheless, the FCC's most recent adopted rules require the carriers to provide dispatchable location information to 911 call centers after January 2022, if they are able to do so. 

It is essential that the carriers do not attempt to defer their commitments by, for example, filing waivers in April 2021 instead of demonstrating that they have achieved compliance. The IAFC has urged the wireless carriers to work with public safety to meet the important location accuracy benchmarks adopted by the FCC. 

 Brandon Allen is a manager in the IAFC’s Government Relations department

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