911 update helps first responders pinpoint more exact locations of people in need

A new FCC rule will soon allow first responders to pinpoint a more precise location of a 911 call.

The change will require wireless carriers to not only provide a street address but the exact floor when the call is being made from a multi-story building.

This means first responders won’t have to spend vital minutes searching floor to floor. In an emergency where seconds matter, the change could be the difference between life and death.

When a 911 call is made, first responders are currently dispatched to a street address or an intersection. But in a city like Houston where high-rises and multi-story buildings are the norms, finding a person’s exact location or floor is more complicated.

“If you're in a high rise, let’s say it’s a 10-story high rise, it could take firefighters 15 to 20 minutes to come find you if we don’t know what floor you’re on,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Firefighter’s Association.

In November, the FCC voted unanimously to require wireless cell phone carriers to provide a caller's vertical location data within three meters during emergencies. The change is a significant step in improving response times.

“Instead of starting on the first floor looking for you and you're on the 9th floor, we’re going to go straight to the 9th floor and we're going to come find you.

“It’s a huge step in the right direction and hopefully we’ll be able to change the radio technology for firefighters and police officers next,” Lancton said.

“80 percent of 911 calls come from a cell phone device. People use it from their homes now with fewer and fewer landlines, so it's not just an issue of a business district, but it's also a residential issue,” said Francisco Sanchez, Harris County’s Emergency Management Coordinator.

Sanchez said the new ruling could've been especially helpful during a catastrophic event like Harvey.

“Us having access to that information, we can have a better sense of how much flooding is happening where and that'll improve how we dispatch resources. That way, we send them to the areas that were impacted most when we're scarce on resources and have a better operating picture in terms of what’s happening in the community,” said Sanchez.

The more efficiently first responders can address one call means the faster they can head to another, and ultimately, save more lives.

Houston will be one of the first cities to implement the change, as the FCC ruling goes into effect in the country’s 25 biggest cellular markets by April 2021. The top 50 markets will see the changes by April 2023.