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In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued Report and Order 94-102, which established the plan to implement wireless 911 services throughout the United States. While maintaining a hands-off approach to the technology used, the document provided a much-needed timetable and standards of accuracy for wireless location.
As emergency services providers, we are well aware of the need to obtain a good address – something that has been problematic with cellular telephones since their introduction to the public market two decades ago. Emergency communications personnel have long been frustrated by the “mixed blessing” of wireless devices. On the one hand, persons needing assistance on limited-access highways and in remote areas benefit from the ability to immediately contact help. On the other hand, these cellular calls have historically been delivered without location information – a key point of conventional enhanced 911 (E-911) that came to be routinely expected.
For many years, wireless 911 calls provided the dispatch center with no more information than a conventional call dialed to a seven-digit office number. Recently, however, things took a turn for the better with the rollout of “Phase II” of the wireless implementation plan. Phase II calls deliver both the Automatic Number Identification (ANI) and Automatic Location Information (ALI)) components that have long been a feature of E-911 on conventional telephones. However, that being said, there are still issues with which municipalities will have to deal.
First, the presence of Phase II is not automatic, nor is it widespread. It is estimated that about 20% of existing Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) are presently capable of providing this service. Obviously, this means that the vast majority are not. To get to this level, an agency must file a written request with the cellular carriers to provide service, and must have internal equipment that can translate and plot the latitude and longitude data attached to the call. In some states, these requests are filed by the state themselves, and in others it is an individual responsibility. In any event, the local dispatch center will most likely be responsible for the cost of making the required on-site upgrades. Depending upon the state and age of current devices, this can range anywhere from a minor software update to a total replacement of telephones, Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) and mapping.
Because enhanced wireless addresses are delivered in the longitude-latitude format, some system must be in place to convert these coordinates into a more recognizable address. For agencies involved in wilderness or water rescue, the availability of Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates is a plus, but for calls located on dry land there has to be some mechanism to translate these digits into a commonly recognized form of address. Some may argue that this can be done with a paper map or set of files, and this is true. It can also be argued that you can measure your backyard with a six-inch ruler and obtain accurate results. Both statements are true, but unless you are talking about a small area, you are probably going to want a more efficient mechanism by which to obtain data.
In this regard, a digitally accurate map is important. Even if you currently have a computerized Geographic Information Systems (GIS) file, it is critical to assure that all street centerlines and major commonplace records carry with them the correct latitude and longitude. Failure to do this will render any reporting system next to useless. Improving the CAD system to allow for an automatic interface is another step that should be taken, as wireless providers utilize different data formats, which are all different from the existing wireline. Because there are normally multiple cellular carriers in any given area, a similar number of “masks” will be required for seamless data translation.