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Rex Sanders
(Rex) - M

Locale: Central California Coast
Serious problems with cell phone 911 call locations on 11/18/2013 10:27:57 MST Print View

USA cell phone callers expect that when we call 911 for an emergency, first responders can find us, even if we can't tell them where we are.

Don't count on it.

For example, 911 call centers receive accurate locations for only 19% of California 911 calls made from T-Mobile cell phones.

The causes are complex, and solutions are expensive. Below I provide a simplified explanation.

Bottom line: Today, your 911 call probably will not include an accurate location. And this problem won't be fixed soon.

Background


The FCC requires cell phone companies to provide 911 call centers with caller locations accurate to 50 to 300 meters ("Phase II locations") - outdoors - unless you are in certain counties chosen by the cell phone companies.

Several technologies can provide sufficiently accurate locations, including GPS built into the phone, cell tower triangulation, and a few complex methods using cell towers or TV stations.

If the cell phone company can't provide an accurate location, they provide a "Phase I" location, i.e. the location of the cell tower handling your call. Since some cell towers cover over 100 square miles, these locations are not very useful for 911 call centers.

In order to provide accurate 911 call locations, most cell phone systems require cell phones to send GPS locations, so every new cell phone includes a GPS receiver.

Problem


Since 2008, the percentage of cell phone 911 calls with accurate locations has dropped or barely changed for most cell phone systems. Here's a chart from five areas in California; similar problems have been reported in other states.

911 call problems in California

In particular, accurate locations for calls from AT&T and T-Mobile phones have dropped significantly and continue to decline. Only Verizon provides accurate locations for just over half of 911 calls; other companies are worse.

The causes are complex, and each side in the argument makes certain claims and refutes claims from the other side.

In brief, some causes might be:

- Over-reliance on GPS. GPS positions are not available inside buildings (where an increasing percentage of 911 calls are made), and 911 positions are not immediately available to 911 call centers (due to the time required to generate a GPS position).

- 911 call centers don't "re-bid" (ask again 30 seconds later) for location information. Cell phone companies claim that 99% of 911 calls contain accurate information, eventually. However, many 911 calls don't last long enough for a re-bid, and some 911 call centers can't or won't re-bid.

- The FCC permits cell phone companies to exclude counties, or portions of counties, only where wireless carriers determine that providing location accuracy is limited, or technologically impossible, because of either heavy forestation or the inability to triangulate a caller's location. After 30 minutes of digging, I could not find those reports for Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint; I've linked to T-Mobile's exclusion report below.

Solutions


Today, November 18, 2013, the FCC, 911 call center representatives, and cell phone company representatives are in a workshop to try to fix the problem. Expect a lot of finger-pointing and no real solutions, since probably everybody involved needs to spend more money to solve the problem: adding better location technologies, upgrading 911 call centers, etc.

Bottom line


Today, your 911 call probably will not include an accurate location. And this problem won't be fixed soon.

References


FCC 911 Wireless Services
http://www.fcc.gov/guides/wireless-911-services

FCC Workshop On E911 Phase II Location Accuracy, November 18, 2013
http://www.fcc.gov/events/workshop-e911-phase-ii-location-accuracy

Wikipedia has a good overview of different 911 location technologies:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enhanced_9-1-1#Wireless_enhanced_911

News reports on 911 location problems:
http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-911-caller-location-20130812,0,5926945.story
http://www.gsnmagazine.com/node/38866
http://www.insidegnss.com/node/3780

AT&T's public response to these problems:
http://www.attpublicpolicy.com/public-safety/making-911-calls-in-california-2/

T-Mobile list of excluded counties:
http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=7021747627

Edited by Rex on 11/18/2013 10:31:54 MST.

HK Newman
(hknewman) - MLife

Locale: Western US
Re: Serious problems with cell phone 911 call locations on 11/18/2013 10:50:14 MST Print View

After finishing a Point Reyes backpack in late 2010, I turned on my cell phone driving towards Fairfax CA and was shocked with a "no service" in the northern part of the Bay Area. Maybe coverage has improved since then, maybe not.

During my most recent overnight, a traditional pack weight buddy had a newer iPad (none retinal display) with a Trimble brand GPS/map program. Though we were out of cell phone range, the iPad GPS was fairly accurate (refracting a bit when we were under tree cover as GPS are apt to do regardless).

The key thing is we were out of cell phone range, so any 911 call regardless would have involved a runner descending a couple miles of frozen sleet, maybe more … trying to get cell phone service to tell the operator we were at a known point (the San Mateo Lookout). Also we all had iPhones w/ different providers … ATT, Verizon, etc.. with no bars in the true wilderness. One of those risks everyone undertakes voluntarily....

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Serious problems with cell phone 911 call locations on 11/18/2013 11:12:25 MST Print View

Good article, Rex.

--B.G.--

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Serious problems with cell phone 911 call locations on 11/18/2013 13:45:21 MST Print View

Good Morning America talked about this today. They said gps doesn't work good enough for location inside a building or even inside a car.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Serious problems with cell phone 911 call locations on 11/18/2013 14:35:14 MST Print View

I wonder what happened to self-reliant wilderness travel? Has it been subsumed (or utterly displaced) by the cradle-to-grave nanny state?

For the record, we do not carry a GPS, a PLB, a SPOT or any mobile phone. We do carry a topo map and a compass - and we rely on them and ourselves. Just like all walkers of previous generations.

Cheers

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: Serious problems with cell phone 911 call locations on 11/18/2013 14:37:32 MST Print View

"They said gps doesn't work good enough for location inside a building or even inside a car."

That is fairly accurate, but there are some gray areas. I spent many years helping customers with permanent GPS installations, so I know.

Most buildings have enough metallic 'crap' in the attic or on the roof that it blocks the signals. A case in point is that much fiberglass attic insulation is backed with aluminum foil. A few buildings are constructed with thin, modern materials that are transparent to the signals. Some buildings have a central atrium with a transparent skylight, so you can get a GPS fix in the center, but not so much toward the outside. Some residences are constructed out of stucco, but that is formed over a metallic mesh, so it blocks signals. GPS can sneak in through a wide window, but that is very unpredictable. In a TEMPEST-rated building, you will get zero signal inside. I've seen people try to install a GPS antenna inside a TEMPEST building, and they will pull out their hair trying. Don't ask me how I know this.

Cars are unpredictable as well, due to the shape. Some cars have a mostly vertical windshield, and others have a very windswept windshield. If you can get the GPS antenna far enough forward underneath the windshield that it can look up and see most of the sky, then that mostly works. But, if it looks up and sees mostly the metal roof of the car, then that doesn't work. Additionally, the GPS view out the side windows is very unpredictable. A few cars have a metallic glazing on the windshield glass, and I think that is a electrical conductor for windshield defrosting and deicing. That metal also tends to block the GPS signal. In contrast, if you can get an external GPS antenna outside the metal chassis of the car, then that tends to work good. Some newer cars have a bunch of cell phone and GPS navigation electronics in them. Most of the time, they put the GPS antenna either outside next to the rear window, or else inside on the rear window package shelf (where it can get a good view straight up). Some cars have an OnTrac system, and it generally puts the GPS antenna back there near the rear window, but it puts the control head in the inside rear view mirror.

So, there are no absolute rules for any of this. You need to stick a handheld GPS receiver in the building or car and test it.

--B.G.--

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: Serious problems with cell phone 911 call locations on 11/18/2013 14:43:42 MST Print View

"I wonder what happened to self-reliant wilderness travel?"

You underestimate the power of a modern marketing department. They do not need to prove the effectiveness of GPS, a PLB, a SPOT, or any mobile phone. All they have to do is to advertise a solution, whether the problem really exists or not. Then they let the world beat a pathway to their door.

Mark me as a cynic.

On the other hand, Roger, some day you will arrive at a certain age when your body isn't as reliable as it used to be. You will be in the outback when your knee buckles and you are incapacitated. Without any means of calling for emergency help, the drop bears may get you.

--B.G.--

Don Morris
(hikermor) - F
Serious Problems, etc on 11/18/2013 16:01:12 MST Print View

The best answer is "all of the above." Get a decent GPS/cellphone, but don't forget the map and compass, and the basics of the ten (or is it fourteen or so?) essentials. Get first aid training, carry basic stuff, and stay current. Get your bod in decent shape, etc.etc.

The PLB people have got to be grateful for wives and relatives who press for the purchase and use of their devices. It is clear that they can make a difference in some cases, but they are ideally an addition to the basics that have operated for centuries. I wonder if there are any objective studies that indicate to what extend the PLB gadgets have actually improved the situation?

Desert Dweller
(Drusilla) - M

Locale: Wild Wild West
PLB stats on 11/18/2013 16:17:44 MST Print View

Well, it's kind of easy to look the stats up. Thousands of lives have been saved with PLB use. Both of my Fathers use them religiously as one flies a plane and the other is a lifetime man of the sea on ships and boats fishing and traveling and neither of them would go out without the PLB's they use. I spent 48 hours stalled in high seas once in some very rough weather and we still did not call for help as we felt we could fix the engines that failed and eventually did. When I started traveling on foot and over landing in remote areas my fathers insisted that I carry a PLB, I use an ACR, and yep it's a pain to carry, expensive to buy and I consider it a "luxury item" but it gives both my family and myself some peace of mind. I am considering switching to a smaller ACR soon.

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Re: Serious problems with cell phone 911 call locations on 11/18/2013 16:30:19 MST Print View

"For the record, we do not carry a GPS, a PLB, a SPOT or any mobile phone. We do carry a topo map and a compass - and we rely on them and ourselves. Just like all walkers of previous generations."

With you most of the way here. I carried nothing but a map and compass until I was in my early 60's, at which point I finally caved and started carrying a PLB, primarily for my wife's peace of mind. That said, I suspect I will go to my grave without using either a GPS or a sat phone. My one temptation is an altimeter for use up here in the Cascades, where we get a lot of whiteouts. Been thinking on it for years now, and still haven't got one.....

Stephen Barber
(grampa) - MLife

Locale: SoCal
Re: Re: Re: Serious problems with cell phone 911 call locations on 11/18/2013 17:02:45 MST Print View

"I carried nothing but a map and compass until I was in my early 60's, at which point I finally caved and started carrying a PLB, primarily for my wife's peace of mind."

Ditto. And in southern California mountains, just about any time of year, if I break a leg or whatever, I think a smokey fire will get attention and help faster than my PLB.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: Re: Serious problems with cell phone 911 call locations on 11/18/2013 17:17:36 MST Print View

"My one temptation is an altimeter for use up here in the Cascades, where we get a lot of whiteouts."

But even if you have an altimeter, when you get in a whiteout you are still in a whiteout. The altimeter can tell you approximately where you are on the slope, but you still have to use your topo map to figure out the route.

In contrast, if you use a GPS receiver, you can lay a path of "electronic breadcrumbs" from the trailhead all the way up a peak. Then, if something like a whiteout happens and you are forced to retreat, all you have to do is to follow the breadcrumbs in the track log right back in the reverse direction, and you don't need the other items so much unless you burn your GPS battery up or the satellites fall out of the sky. Besides, if you like the barometric altimeter function, some GPS receivers have that built-in. Otherwise, you can deal with the "GPS altimeter" which is not perfect.

Personally, if I get into a whiteout, I lose all instinctive sense of direction.

--B.G.--

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Re: Re: Serious problems with cell phone 911 call locations on 11/18/2013 20:47:45 MST Print View

Hi Tom

> an altimeter for use up here in the Cascades, where we get a lot of whiteouts
Buy one! A serious aid to navigation, on a par with a compass in the mountains. Mine is in my watch.

Cheers

Rex Sanders
(Rex) - M

Locale: Central California Coast
Back to cell phones and 911 ... on 11/18/2013 22:35:03 MST Print View

I'm not encouraging anyone to take a cell phone, inReach SE, PLB, or even a map and compass (*) into the wilderness. That's an individual decision, and I respect whatever decision you carefully consider. Especially if you have all the facts.

Which is one of the reasons I started this thread. Many people believe cell phones work everywhere, and that a call to 911 will result in a helicopter dropping from the sky in a few minutes. Reality is quite different, and I was shocked at how bad 911 call location delivery has become. Especially troubling is the contrast between the sharp drop for AT&T, versus gradual improvement for Verizon. Important parts of the story are still missing.

So, given that you have a cell phone, and call 911, what can you do to improve your chances of being found and helped?

- Be prepared to tell 911 operators your location to the best of your ability.

- Make your call from an open area with a good view of most of the sky. Give GPS a chance!

- Stay on the line with 911 until they hang up. Longer calls are more likely to to get located properly.

- Still lost? Ask the 911 operator to run a "re-bid" after a couple of minutes on the call. It's worth a try.

-- Rex

(*) Humans tramped in the wilderness for hundreds of thousands of years, eventually populating most of the world, without a map and compass. Many people still do.

Rex Sanders
(Rex) - M

Locale: Central California Coast
Link to Good Morning America clip on 11/18/2013 22:53:27 MST Print View

Here's the Good Morning America clip on 911 location problems that John mentioned:
http://gma.yahoo.com/video/murder-victims-husband-fights-improve-121323771.html

Light on details, long on consequences.

-- Rex

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Back to cell phones and 911 ... on 11/18/2013 22:56:17 MST Print View

"Especially troubling is the contrast between the sharp drop for AT&T, versus gradual improvement for Verizon."

Rex, I can't give you an instant answer. Some of the large cellular companies are known for "rolling their own networks" with their own staff, and they have only themselves to kick around if it doesn't work right. Other large cellular companies are known for "farming it out" to small contractors who may be unlikely to use all of the most sophisticated pieces and parts to get it done. So, there can be a big difference in the service you get in one place versus another place. As I stated previously, carrying the traffic is where they make the bucks, so their investments often track that, and taking care of the unfunded mandates from the FCC often slides around on the "to do" list.

In early June, I was in a large national park trying to make a cell phone call, and it would never go through (service unavailable). Everybody else with a different service provider was making their calls OK. As soon as I left the park, mine worked. Go figure.

--B.G.--

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Back to cell phones and 911 ... on 11/19/2013 15:00:06 MST Print View

> - Be prepared to tell 911 operators your location to the best of your ability.
Sadly, that may not work.

We had a case here in Australia not too long ago when a kid fell, was injured, and tried to call for help. He was on the side of a 'mountain' in the middle of the bush. The operator kept asking him for the nearest cross-roads and simply would not accept that there were no roads anywhere nearby. The battery ran out and the kid died.

Sigh

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F - M
rescue today on 11/20/2013 02:11:56 MST Print View

a rescue today around vancouver thats very relevant to cell phone location accuracy ...



i started a thread about it in general ...

http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/forums/thread_display.html?forum_thread_id=84315

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Re: Re: Re: Serious problems with cell phone 911 call locations on 11/20/2013 17:35:07 MST Print View

"But even if you have an altimeter, when you get in a whiteout you are still in a whiteout. The altimeter can tell you approximately where you are on the slope, but you still have to use your topo map to figure out the route."

I had assumed folks would understand that a topo map and compass would already be in use. Apparently I was wrong. ;0)

So far I haven't felt the need for a GPS unit, convenient as it may be until the batteries go(not unheard of when you are laying down a continuous trail of bread crumbs, I'm told), you're in heavy forest(not unknown up here in the Cascades), or you drop it at an inconvenient spot. Something about teaching an old dogs new tricks? Especially when the old ones have worked well enough for 40 some years and counting.

wiiawiwb wiiawiwb
(wiiawiwb) - F
Cell phones on 11/21/2013 05:51:56 MST Print View

I'll begin by saying that I am worried to death about the current crop of young cell-phone users. They have an attachment to their cell phones akin to newly-born babies attached to their mothers. Virtually inseparable. On the trail, their cell phones are out and they are talking, texting or taking pictures.

I am highly confident that these techies believe their phones will rescue them the same way Tooter Turtle was saved every time by Mr. Wizard. Drizzle, drazzle, drozzle, drome; time for this to come home. Poof, they're back in their warm and cozy living room. All is well. Only a noddypeak believes that.

Many inexperienced hikers bring only their cell phone and have no compass or understand how to use one in conjunction with a map. I belong to a SAR group and it's head shaking how many people haven't even a rudimentary grasp of wilderness navigation. Needless to say they also don't know a thing about wilderness survival other than what they saw Bear Grylls do.

Those folks need to learn how to use a map and compass and practice it. They shouldn't put themselves in a position where they need to be extracted. Granted, things outside your control can go wrong. An animal attack, a heart attack, a broken leg or ankle. Having a PLB, rather than a cell phone, will bail you out. I call that smart.

I don't see anything wrong with taking advantage of technology. If you take a winter tent into the back country, you are relying on modern technology. If you wear the latest and greatest materials, you are relying on modern technology. That's not a bad thing.

What is bad, is not knowing what to do if technology fails you.

Edited by wiiawiwb on 11/21/2013 05:55:44 MST.