Waukesha Co. Hopes New 911 System Precisely Locates Cell Phone Callers

Sep 27, 2018

Hundreds of local governments around the U.S. have started using a 911 system that does a better job of pinpointing the location of someone who calls from a smartphone. One of them is Waukesha County.

Typically, emergency responders have only been able to narrow the location of a 911 call from a smartphone to a radius of between six and 600 meters. And, the narrowing process has taken about 30 seconds. At the Waukesha County Communications Center, officials say they now have a better system.

On Wednesday, dispatcher Bonnie Douglas answered a demonstration call, of what's called the Rapid SOS NG 911 Clearinghouse system. Soon, Douglas told the caller she knew the caller's location. "Okay, I know exactly where you are. I have a good plot on your cellphone right now, okay?" Douglas said.

The county says its new 911 system can locate a smartphone caller to a radius of five to 50 meters, the latter being the length of an Olympic swimming pool.

Director of Emergency Preparedness, Gary Bell says it's vital do better than the previous radius of 600 meters. "It's football season, right? That's two football fields. And that's a radius, up to four football fields away from where that person could be to where they actually are. So that's a big expansive area to try to search out," he explains.

Bell says gauging the location sooner is also important, because some 911 callers drop off the line very quickly.

This apparent improvement in technology didn't come about on its own. About four years ago, the Federal Communications Commission started urging the wireless industry to do better. Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow says things took some time. "There's always challenges. When you look at new technology and look proprietary technology, when do we want to share it? What do we want to do? The key is we've got it," he says.

In the last few months, both Apple, with its iPhone, as well as the makers of cell phones using an Android mobile operating system have come on board.

In Milwaukee County, the Office of Emergency Management says the county works with more than eleven communities to provide the prompt delivery of emergency services, meaning there are some inherent challenges. But the county says it's pleased that the wireless industry says it's now committed to working with the Apple and Android phones to improve 911 location accuracy.

Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.

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