Life or Death: The potential fix for the 911 location accuracy problem

INDIANA— The FCC estimates 10,000 lives could be saved every year if 911 dispatchers had more accurate location information.

It’s a fact CBS4 first uncovered earlier this year, while investigating how wireless carriers have struggled to get first responders accurate location data as more and more 911 callers use cell phones.

Many times, callers can say exactly where they are.

But sometimes, during a medical emergency or assault, a person can’t speak.

That, Seymour dispatcher Lou-Ann Morris says, is when tragedy often hits.

911 LOCATION INACCURACY: A LIFE LOST

“We did everything we possibly could,” Morris said, remembering one of the incidents when location inaccuracy may have cost a life. “In this circumstance it was just one of those…”

Morris trailed off with pain in her eyes.

“It was just heartbreaking,” she finally continued. “It is.”

Lou-Ann Morris was working December 16th at 5 a.m. when Brooke Elswick, a Seymour woman, called 911.

“There was no noise in the background,” said Morris. “There was no voice telling us that she needed help.”

Lou-Ann and her fellow dispatcher thought the call might be one of the dozen pocket dials the Seymour dispatch gets every day. They had little way of knowing Brooke was in the middle of a severe asthma attack.

She couldn’t speak.

She couldn’t breathe.

All dispatchers had to go on was the location information from her wireless provider. That data told dispatchers Brooke called from an apartment at 101 East 7th Street.

“Looks like the last apartment on the very end,” you can hear in the 911 call recording. “It’s showing Apartment 5.”

The officer dispatched didn’t know Brooke actually lay struggling for her life in apartment three. Her friend found the 32-year-old dead there 17 hours later.

“It’s hard, sometimes, to process it, knowing that we couldn’t get to her and we wish that we could’ve because she was so young,” said Morris.

Stories like Brooke’s are why one Indiana man has made it his life’s mission to change that.

MAN ON A MISSION: IMPROVING LOCATION ACCURACY

“I’m not satisfied until every American can access this technology, regardless of where they are,” said Michael Martin, co-founder of Rapid SOS.

Martin, a Rockport, Indiana, native is working with a partner to change how location is calculated for 911 calls and how dispatch centers receive that data.

Right now, wireless providers primarily use cell tower triangulation and GPS to figure out where you are. In very rural areas with few towers or inside dense, urban buildings where GPS doesn't work, that method fails.

Their Rapid SOS technology is designed to take data from all five sensors inside your smartphone to transmit a better location to 911 centers.

“The location does vary, but our median accuracy is about 16 meters,” said Martin.

Compare that to an accuracy of about 50 meters or just over half a football field that the wireless carriers provide according to the FCC. And even then, they only achieve that precision on two-thirds or less of their 911 calls.

My previous investigation showed location data can be even worse off in certain places.

In test calls in Hamilton County, wireless carriers pegged my initial location up to six miles away from where I actually stood.

“Now you just dial 911 and you can be precisely located,” said Martin.

THE TEST: CHECKING RAPID SOS’S CLAIM OF PRECISION

To check out Martin's claim of superior accuracy, CBS4’s Deanna Allbrittin went to Clinton County.

It’s one of the several Indiana counties where Rapid SOS is now testing, with the hopes of eventually getting a state OK to implement the tech statewide.

With our current 911 system, every time a test call was made, the carriers showed dispatchers Deanna stood several blocks or miles away.

When Deanna called using Rapid SOS, she showed up right inside the 911 center.

To really put Rapid SOS to the test, Deanna took the phones across the street to the basement of “Old Stoney,” an all-limestone city building.

Once again, the carriers had a tough time showing dispatchers exactly where she was. Each time the map pinpoint showed up at least several blocks away, usually pegged to a cell tower.

Using Rapid SOS technology though, not only did dispatchers see the right address, but once it even specifically showed Deanna was in the northwest corner of the building. It did that before the dispatcher even picked up the call.

“Regardless of whether it’s an assault, a kidnapping, a heart attack, a fire, getting first responders to you faster, with more information about where you are and the type of help you need, can have a profound impact in an emergency,” said Martin.

To see if statistics backed up their claims, Rapid SOS  commissioned a study with the Harvard School of Public Health.

The analysis estimates their technology would lead to up to a ten percent reduction in mortality rates, nearly seven percent reduction in healthcare treatment cost and about 20 percent reduction in damage if a home catches fire.

Martin says it’s taken a long time to get to this point, from starting conversations with public safety officials, to developing an app to test the technology, to finally turning the tech on in certain cities.

Indiana’s state 911 board just gave Rapid SOS approval to move forward with a pilot program for some local dispatches. That should start in the next couple months.

If that works, they’ll go ahead with the statewide deployment, making Indiana the very first to have this precise of technology in every county.

Martin says the potential to save lives is driving them to take their time, making sure their solution will work every time a smartphone user dials 911.

“The more we dug in with public safety, the more we realized this is a technology that can never fail,” said Martin.

The stakes really are that high for Rapid SOS and the other solutions wireless carriers and others are working on it. Because they already know what happens when 911 technology does fail.

Deaths like Brooke's are a reminder of the costs.

“I wish it was a different outcome for her and her family,” said Morris with a long pause. “Unfortunately until technology steps up to where we can get better and get closer to where they need us, unfortunately it keeps happening and we wish that it wouldn’t.”

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