December 23, 2019 - 10:00 am
By Lisa M. Fowlkes | Chief, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau

As 2019 draws to a close, it’s once again time to recap what the FCC has done to strengthen America’s 911 system over the past year and highlight what’s to come.  While our work is technically complex, our overriding goal is simple: all Americans should be able to reach 911 and be located by first responders during an emergency.

Helping First Responders Locate 911 Callers in Multi-Story Buildings

In November, the FCC adopted rules that will help first responders locate people who call 911 from wireless phones in multi-story buildings, such as many apartments and offices.  The new rules will help emergency responders determine the floor level of a 911 caller, which will reduce emergency response times and ultimately save lives.

Specifically, wireless providers must transmit the caller’s vertical location, within three meters above or below the phone, to the 911 call center. This requirement will help emergency responders more accurately identify the floor level for most 911 calls.  It is also achievable, which will keep the deployment of vertical location information to public safety officials on schedule, beginning in April 2021.

We’re gratified by the widespread support for this decision from the public safety community, including the International Association of Fire Fighters, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Association of State EMS Officials, the National Sheriffs’ Association, NENA: The 9-1-1 Association, and the National Association of State 911 Administrators. 

The FCC also invited public comment on establishing a timeline for even more stringent vertical location accuracy, including ultimately requiring wireless providers to deliver the caller’s specific floor level.  We will continue to monitor technological progress towards these goals and encourage stakeholders to provide input.

Helping the Public Call 911 from Multi-Line Telephone Systems

In August, the FCC adopted rules to help ensure that people who call 911 from multi-line telephone systems—which commonly serve hotels, office buildings, and campuses—can reach 911 and be quickly located by first responders. 

The FCC implemented Kari’s Law, which requires multi-line telephone systems 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. 

Kari’s Law would not have been enacted without the tireless efforts of Hank Hunt, who was often joined by Chairman Pai in advocating for direct dialing to 911.  Now that it is the law of the land, and we’ve adopted rules specifying how companies can effectively meet their statutory obligations, our focus turns to promoting awareness and ensuring compliance with the rules that will go into effect next February.

Improving Emergency Response for 911 Calls Across Technology Platforms

Also in August, the FCC adopted rules to ensure that “dispatchable location” information—such as the street address, floor level, and room number of a 911 caller— is conveyed with 911 calls, regardless of the technological platform used, so that first responders can be quickly dispatched to the caller’s location.  The new rules, which implement Section 506 of RAY BAUM’S Act, apply dispatchable location requirements and timelines to multi-line telephone systems, fixed telephone service, interconnected Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, Telecommunications Relay Services, and mobile texting services. 

Promoting 911 Reliability

The Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau issued a report detailing the cause and impact of a nationwide CenturyLink outage that disrupted 911 service for approximately 17 million Americans in December 2018.  Our report, issued after a thorough investigation, outlined lessons learned from the incident and identified network reliability best practices that could have prevented or mitigated the effects of the outage.  We continue to work with major providers to discuss the application of industry-accepted best practices in their networks and are offering assistance to smaller providers to help ensure that our nation’s communications networks remain robust, reliable, and resilient

Shining a Light on 911 Fee Diversion

Just last week we sent our 11th annual report to Congress on the collection and expenditure of 911 fees on the state and local level.  These reports contain a wealth of information about the status of 911 funding and deployment across the country, including identifying the handful of states that use 911 fees paid by the public for non-911 purposes.  We support transparency around the unfortunate practice of 911 fee diversion, and you can read the report on our website.

Streamlining Our 911 Rules

Also, while it may not generate headlines, it’s still noteworthy that the FCC consolidated its 911 rules from multiple rule parts into a single rule part this year, which will make it easier for stakeholders, such as service providers and emergency management officials, to more easily determine 911 requirements.

Looking Ahead

Next year will continue to be a busy one in our ongoing effort to strengthen emergency calling.  For example, although we focused a great deal this year on identifying the vertical location of 911 callers, our work overseeing improvements to 911 horizontal location accuracy continues.  Wireless providers must meet a tough horizontal accuracy benchmark in April 2020, and we be closely monitoring their progress. 

Last, as we always emphasize, America’s 911 system relies on the hard work of a wide range of stakeholders beyond the FCC—including public safety organizations, government partners, communications providers, technology vendors, and public interest groups.  Many on the front lines, including emergency responders and 911 telecommunicators, will be working throughout the holidays to keep their communities safe.  Thank you for service, and I wish everyone a safe and happy holiday season.