Emergency buttons, 911 dispatch, & the tech that got left behind

What happens when the one thing that has to work… doesn’t?

Back in the day…

Back in the days of the landline, 911 dispatch locating you was a much simpler task. To many of us, the advancement of the cellphone — heck, some of you might not call it a cellphone anymore — the advancement of the smartphone is a bygone conclusion. The landline is dying on the vine, but this advancement isn’t all good news. We’ve been adding complexity to the 911 dispatch process.

You might have noticed with the newest iPhones that their SOS function is right out in the open. This is only one example of how companies are trying to simplify the process of dialing emergency services.

By the way, Android phones don’t have built-in emergency buttons, except for newer Samsung phones. So, you’re all stuck with third party apps, which are extra money out of your pocket.

Hang on, you might think, I can just as easily dial 9–1–1 on a smartphone as on a landline. AND you just pointed out that there are even emergency buttons built into my new phone that will do it for me. So how exactly is the process getting more complicated?

Touché. But take this for example.

If you have this functionality, chances are you’ve accidentally activated it once or twice by now.

There’s something mildly panic-inducing (a phrase, by the way, that might seem oxymoronic — but is actually quite precise) about seeing one of those big red buttons appear on your phone when all you wanted was to fidget with something while waiting for coffee.

That’s all mostly besides my point, though. The real complications go way beyond accidental activations — it has to do with the way new technology interacts with an outdated 911 dispatch network.

Dispatch centers have been left in the past

Well the emergency SOS function is essentially an emergency button — a digital, Apple-branded version of those Life-Alert dongles we used to see commercials for when we stayed home sick and watched Friends reruns. Hit the button and yell “Help, I’ve fallen and can’t get up!” then patiently wait for an ambulance or police to arrive.

Okay, so it’s a little more complicated than that, but not by much: The SOS button will also launch a series of text messages to your preset emergency contacts (if you’ve entered them) along with your location, once you’ve finished the 911 call. But it doesn’t necessarily send that same GPS location to the 911 dispatcher.

And that’s a problem.

Dispatchers are in despair

There’s a key component you need when contacting emergency services: location. Take a step back in time, when landlines were the main mode of voice communication, and location was easy. A 911 dispatcher could simply look up the address the phone number was registered to. Since the landline is physically tethered to that location, that’s where the call came from. Guaranteed. When the woman in the Life Alert commercial pushed the button, she was always at home.

Cellphones have thrown a wrench in that. Your phone number is no longer tethered to an address. That would kind of defeat the purpose of a mobile phone.

So where does that leave dispatchers?

It leaves them asking you for your location, over and over. But what if you don’t know where you are? That’s when their job gets tricky, and where the landline used to fill the gap for them.

For a long time, dispatchers needed the caller to give a location for emergency services to go to. And around 70% of 911 calls are made from cell phones now, according the Federal Communications Commission.

Think about that for a minute. All of those callers need to know and need to be able to communicate exactly where they are — or they’re out of luck:

But what about attempts to modernize 911, like e911 — which lets you text dispatchers if you can’t talk?

This is where dispatchers run into problems, and depending on what state and what county you’re in when you make the call, those dispatchers might have wildly different tools to try and find you. It’s not their fault, but a symptom of a (very) slowly advancing emergency dispatch system.

Too little, too late

See, there are two phases of cell phone compliancy as set forth by the FCC:

Phase 1: the phone service must provide the last known cell location which the phone used to make the 911 call — that’s FCC-speak for “which cell phone tower the phone was closest to.” That’s a lot of ground for emergency services to cover.

Phase 2: the phone service must provide the latitude and longitude of the phone which made the call, within 50 to 300 meters — the phone’s GPS location… more or less. That’s still a lot of ground. Possibly several football fields worth.

The FCC is working on implementing the newest tools, which are Phase 2 compliant, around the country. But with an integration rate of 80% by 2021, and a rate of only 40% last year, it seems like too little, too late.

Most new phones (think releases in the last two years) can provide Phase 2 compliant information. But that doesn’t guarantee that dispatchers will get that information, because the centers taking the call might not be a part of that 40% with the newer technology.

We often rely on our phones to work every time, without fail — and to an extent, phone manufacturers have been living up to those expectations. The infrastructure surrounding 911, though, hasn’t even come close to catching up with those expectations. And it feels like no one knows that.

So, if you were to call today, there would be less than a 50/50 chance the dispatcher would get your location from your phone. Those aren’t comforting odds in an emergency. If you’re unlucky, you’d be back to trying to tell them where you are yourself: square one.

Remember, 80% by 2021, 40% today. See what I mean by too little, too late?

This is where the digital emergency button really ends up falling short — it’s hamstrung by a system that hasn’t quite caught up with the wireless age yet.

Isn’t it ridiculous that you can call a Lyft, drop a pin exactly where you’d like to be picked up at, and the driver will find you nearly every time? That app even knows where it isn’t supposed to let you be picked up — like at many airports where there is only one ride sharing pickup spot.

With that level of data transfer possible between two individual phones, it seems unbearably stone-age to have to rely on decades old technology when it comes to your safety.

So maybe we should be doing something new.

Editor/writer @ulzi. Writer, photographer, builder, racer, thinker, storyteller, wannabe-statistician. The world may be my oyster, but I hate oysters.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store