In the olden days when everyone still used landlines, you could count on an ambulance knowing exactly where to come find you whenever you called 911. When the rest of the world switched over to cell phones though, 911 technology stayed stuck in the past. That’s why if you call 911 today without knowing your location, they’ll have a hard time helping you – even though when you call an Uber, your driver has no trouble finding you. It’s one reason for a recent uptick in people turning to Uber or Lyft in emergencies, rather than an ambulance.
Around 80% of all 911 calls are made from cell phones, so when someone needs life-saving care, any extra time it takes for emergency responders to figure out where to go can be the difference between life and death. And even though everyone agrees this issue is important, finding a good solution has been difficult – and that’s with both the government and tech companies working to solve the problem.
So what are they trying to do about it? We’ve explored four projects trying to make 911 as fast as Uber.
1. Next Generation 911
Right now in many places across the United States if you need to contact emergency services, your only option is to call. You can’t text or send a photo or image, like you can when contacting anybody else from your cell phone. Let’s think about that for a second. You can text your dentist or the host at the restaurant or, ahem, send pics of your car accident to your insurance agent to file a claim, but ya can’t text 911? Are we living in 2018 or…??
Anyway, Next Generation 911 (NG911) is the government’s effort to change that.
The goal is to move all 911 systems away from the analog network they were originally built on to an IP-based system that makes it possible to send texts and media to 911 responders, along with better location services.
This transition is a slow and expensive process that will require local government buy-in, which is why many states haven’t gotten any further than thinking about making the move.
2. National Emergency Address Database (NEAD)
Another government effort, the National Emergency Address Database (NEAD), borrows an idea from how the location technology used by many apps works. The reason Uber can find you so well is that your phone’s GPS doesn’t just depend on tracking the nearest cell phone tower for your location – which could be hundreds of yards away – it taps into all the wireless hot spots nearby to get an even closer read.
If the government’s systems could use those same wireless hot spots, their accuracy would come a lot closer to what Uber can pull off now. But they don’t have automatic access to that information; they have to work with companies like wireless and cable providers to build it.
As of now, people working on the NEAD think it will be working by later this year. But they’ve only just started building out the hot spot database, so that estimate could be overly hopeful.
3. Advanced Mobile Location
In its most recent OS update (iOS 11.3), Apple announced Advanced Mobile Location services. This feature ensures that any time a person makes a call to emergency services on their iPhone, the phone automatically sends its current location to emergency responders. But there’s a catch: it only works in places where the emergency system supports AML, and since the location is sent by SMS, that leaves out most of the United States, at least until they get NG911 set up.
Google offers something similar for Android phones and brags that their Emergency Location Service is supported by over 99% of Android devices. And yet it only works in a couple of countries.
While it’s a start, these features won’t be doing people in the United States much good for a while yet.
4. Rapid SOS
One company has made some progress in bridging the divide between the 911 system’s technology and the mobile technology that tracks user location. RapidSOS has an app that will provide your location data to any 911 system that works with one of the public safety software companies they partner with, which covers a lot more territory in the U.S. than NG911 currently does.
Their partners are the companies providing the software 911 operators use to take calls and dispatch emergency vehicles. By working with the software already in use rather than waiting for the slow, costly changeover to a new system, RapidSOS can hopscotch over the issues making progress so slow for other solutions.
There’s a catch, though. For RapidSOS to work, people have to use the app, which typically charges $49.99/year for a family plan or $29.99/year for an individual. In response to many devastating months of natural disasters in the U.S., though, RapidSOS has offered the app free of charge to new users for the next three years.
For the people who know about it and sign up for it, RapidSOS can be a good answer to the problem. But that’s still makes it only a partial solution – the company and app don’t have wide name recognition, so most people who call 911 are still going to have trouble answering that first question the operator asks, “Where are you?”
How long it will take before our phones can answer that simple question during the moment we need it most?