December 11, 2018 - 9:45 am
By Lisa M. Fowlkes | Chief, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau

There is no higher priority at the FCC than promoting reliable 911 service.  As we approach the end of 2018, I thought I’d recap our work this year to strengthen emergency calling and highlight some of our next steps for 2019.

Improving 911 Calling from Multi-Line Telephone Systems

The year began with a national focus on 911: February marked the 50th anniversary of the first 911 call, and the President signed two new laws to improve emergency calling.  The FCC then began work to implement these statutes.

First, Kari’s Law requires multi-line telephone systems—which commonly serve hotels, office buildings, and campuses—to enable users to dial 911 directly, without having to dial a prefix (such as a “9”) to reach an outside line.  Kari’s Law also requires multi-line telephone systems to provide notification, such as to a front desk or security office, when a 911 call is made in order to facilitate building entry by first responders.  In September, the FCC proposed rules to provide clarity and specificity to these statutory requirements so that companies can effectively meet their obligations. Our work on this continues.

Second, RAY BAUM’S Act requires the FCC to consider adopting rules to ensure that “dispatchable location” information—essentially the street address, floor level, and room number of a 911 caller—is conveyed with 911 calls, regardless of the technological platform used.  The FCC proposed rules that would apply dispatchable location requirements to multi-line telephone systems, interconnected VoIP, and other platforms that support 911 calling.  We are hard at work to complete this effort by our statutory deadline of September 2019.

Examining How to Route Wireless 911 Calls More Quickly

Another issue we’re tackling is how to route wireless 911 calls to the correct call center more quickly, which can lead to faster response times.

Here’s the challenge: wireless 911 calls are currently routed to 911 call centers based on the location of the cell tower that handles the call.  But in some cases—for example, if a 911 call is made near a county or a city border—the nearest cell tower may be in a neighboring jurisdiction.  In these cases, the call is routed to a 911 call center in that neighboring jurisdiction, not the call center that serves the caller’s location.  These wireless 911 calls must then be transferred to the proper call center, which can waste valuable time during emergencies.

Earlier this year, the FCC launched an examination into the extent of these “misrouted” wireless 911 calls and ways to route emergency calls more quickly.  In particular, we sought public input on the feasibility of routing wireless 911 calls based on the location of the caller as opposed to the location of the cell tower that handles that call.  Advances in location technology may soon make that possible. 

We are reviewing the input in this proceeding and considering how the FCC can best promote wireless 911 call routing improvements. 

Helping First Responders Locate Wireless 911 Callers

We also remain focused on helping emergency responders better locate people who make wireless 911 calls from indoors, which is increasingly common as consumers “cut the cord” on landline phone service.  Locating indoor callers is particularly challenging in environments such as large multi-story buildings, where first responders may lose precious time finding the caller’s floor and room.  

A few years ago, the FCC updated its Enhanced 911 rules, which require wireless providers to automatically transmit to 911 call centers information on the location of wireless 911 calls.  The updated rules require wireless providers to meet an increasingly stringent series of new location accuracy benchmarks over the years that apply to both indoor and outdoor calls.  

Wireless providers have been hard at work improving location technology to meet the new requirements.  Earlier this year, the four nationwide providers committed to incorporating the device-based location technologies found in most smartphones into their Enhanced 911 location solutions.  The providers are also building a national database that will give first responders the dispatchable location of 911 calls from many indoor locations. 

In addition, we are tackling the next frontier in Enhanced 911: identifying a wireless 911 caller’s vertical location (the so-called “z-axis”) in tall buildings, whether or not dispatchable location is available.  Industry completed testing and put forth a proposal for measuring z-axis accuracy, which we published for public comment.  We are studying the record very closely and expect that the Commission will act on this in 2019.

Promoting Transparency About State 911 Fees

Each year we submit a report to Congress on the collection and spending of 911 fees on the state and local level.  These reports contain a wealth of information about the status of 911 funding and deployment —and, most notably, shine a light on the unfortunate practice of 911 fee diversion by a small number of states, where the 911 fees paid by the public are used for purposes unrelated to 911.  We are now finalizing our tenth annual report and plan to submit it to Congress by the end of the year.  As always, we plan to subsequently publish it online in early 2019.

Lastly, I want to emphasize that strengthening 911 is not the FCC’s job alone; it’s a team effort.  In 2019, we will continue to work collaboratively with public safety organizations, government partners, industry, public interest groups, and other stakeholders on this important mission.

 

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