The 911 emergency response system is one of the country's most vital communication tools, yet it's notoriously outdated. One of the primary issues is that, thanks to the prevalence of cell phones, first responders can have a difficult time locating callers.
Apple hopes to help solve that problem with its latest mobile operating system update. Per a company press release, iOS 12 will allow iPhone users to automatically send accurate, secure location data to 911 operators.
Apple updates old tech to help first responders
The iOS update relies on technology Apple first launched in 2015. HELO, which stands for Hybridized Emergency Location, estimates a mobile 911 caller's location using cell towers and on-device data sources such as GPS and WiFi access points. iOS 12 will work with RapidSOS, an emergency technology company, to share HELO location information with 911 call centers.
"911 telecommunicators do extraordinary work managing millions of emergencies with little more than a voice connection," RapidSOS CEO Michael Martin said in the press release. "We are excited to work with Apple to provide first responders a new path for accurate, device-based caller location using transformative Next Generation 911 technology."
The data, which will only be available for emergencies, will be sent using RapidSOS's data pipeline. This pipeline will send HELO data quickly and securely.
An emergency system that failed to keep up with the times
This can and has led to deadly results. In 2014, a woman named Shanell Anderson called 911 after losing control of her SUV and crashing into a pond. Anderson drowned after a dispatcher couldn't locate her, despite Anderson stating exactly where she was. The dispatcher tried everything she could, but Anderson's cell phone call was routed through the nearest tower to a neighboring county's 911 system, which didn't have the woman's location on their maps.
While that incident was caused by cell tower routing issues, even using a phone's location data doesn't always provide accurate results. As The Atlantic reported, Julius Genachowski, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, once toured a 911 call center in Fairfax, Virginia. Genachowski tested the system by calling 911 on his cell phone while still inside the call center. Once connected, a dispatcher asked for permission to locate Genachowski using his phone's GPS. He consented, but the location data said that he was at a Costco half a mile away from the center.
Cell phones make locating 911 callers surprisingly difficult. When people relied on landlines, dispatchers could look up the caller's billing address or search a database of every phone number in their area with a matching street address. A cell phone's billing address doesn't necessarily indicate where the call is coming from. What's more, cell towers are easily overloaded, meaning one call could be rerouted to a tower farther away. A phone's GPS service helps, but it works best when the feature has been turned on for hours, allowing satellites to better detect its location.
The FCC has attempted to modernize the emergency call system, but it's still far behind the times. This is very unfortunate as, according to Pew Research Center, 95 percent of Americans have a mobile phone. This means an increasing number of 911 calls are likely coming from cell phones rather than landlines.
Updates like Apple's will hopefully help solve the 911 caller location issue. Other communications companies may want to take note.
"This new functionality is an example of how companies and first responders can use technology to dramatically improve public safety," former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said in the Apple press release. "Lives will be saved thanks to this effort by Apple and RapidSOS."