When 9-1-1 Can’t Find You: How Wireless Providers Can Save Women’s Lives

Last month, Michelle Miers was shot and stabbed at her home by an attacker. Still breathing but in need of urgent medical care, she picked up her cellphone and dialed 9-1-1. Like most Americans, Miers probably presumed that calling 9-1-1 guaranteed help was on the way. For the 26-year-old mother of two, however, help would come too late—not because Miers was too far away, or because her wounds were already too severe, but because police and paramedics couldn’t figure out where she was.

Miers is one of more than an estimated 10,000 Americans who will die this year because wireless companies don’t transmit precise enough location data to 9-1-1 operators, leaving police unable to locate victims. In Miers’ case, responders were left scrambling door-to-door for 20 minutes before they spotted the apartment building with broken glass in the entryway where Miers lay covered in blood.

Click here to sign a petition urging America’s four largest wireless providers to adopt technologies that will save women’s lives!

Miers’ death is only the latest tragedy resulting from poor cellphone location data: Deanna Cook, who called 9-1-1 on her cellphone in 2012, spent 11 minutes of call time begging her husband not to kill her. It took Dallas police nearly 10 minutes to determine her address and by the time they arrived, they couldn’t find her or her husband. Her family found her dead two days later. In Lansing, Mich., emergency responders listened helplessly on the other end of the line as a woman was stabbed to death by her ex-husband, unable to locate her because she’d called from a wireless phone. Denise Amber Lee, kidnapped from her Florida home and held hostage in 2008, used her abductor’s cellphone to speak to a 9-1-1 operator for a full six minutes. Again, emergency responders could not pin down her location. She was found dead two days later, buried in a shallow grave.

Americans dial 9-1-1 240 million times each year. More than 70 percent of those calls come from wireless devices, and that number will only increase as fewer homes have land lines. When cellphone providers can’t transmit accurate location data to 9-1-1 operators, people die. Cellphone providers do transmit some data now, but it only gets emergency responders within 50 to 300 meters of the victim, which is not close enough to be useful. And with domestic-violence calls from women forming the single largest category of 9-1-1 dials—in some areas, more than 50 percent of calls—it’s clear that women are facing nothing short of a public safety crisis.

Fortunately, there’s already a solution: Under proposed FCC regulations, companies like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless would be required to improve the accuracy of their location data over five years. After two years, all companies would have to provide horizontal location information (x and y coordinates on a flat map) to within 50 meters of a caller for 67 percent of emergency calls. After five years, the requirement would increase to 80 percent. Horizontal location data helps responders determine the specific address of a caller and get to victims before it’s too late.

Additionally, companies would have to provide vertical location data (what floor of a building someone is on, for example) to within three meters of a caller along a similar percentage timeframe, 67 percent compliance after three years, 80 percent after five. When paramedics are looking for an abuse victim in a high-rise building, this kind of information is just as critical as a caller’s horizontal location.

While public safety organizations, emergency responders, fire and police chiefs have come out heavily in support of the proposed FCC regulations, America’s four largest wireless service providers, Verizon WirelessAT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, are full of objections.

While the corporations’ top executives concede that this is an important public safety issue, they reject the FCC’s plan for implementation. The technology, they say, is not yet available (though an independent third-party review says otherwise). The companies also argue that the FCC’s timeframe is unrealistic—putting it in place would take far longer than five years, they say, and rushing it would force an increase in the cost of wireless services.

Groups like the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) have criticized the telecoms’ response, saying that “now” has never been the right time for these companies. They’ve consistently resisted FCC guidelines regulating the transmission of location data to emergency responders:

 In 1995, AT&T stated that the then-newly proposed Wireless E9-1-1 location requirements were ‘premature and counter-productive.’ Only seven years after the implementation of the original rules, however, one study found that ‘following E9-1-1 adoption, the ambulance arrives (and thus medical intervention begins) at a point where the probability of mortality is 11 percent lower’ in cardiac patients. … This begs the question: when will the time ever be right for the Commission to require improved wireless E9-1-1 location performance?

At this time, no single technology can meet the FCC standards, but NENA insists that employing a hybrid of available location technologies will help companies to meet the standards (Verizon Wireless, for example, already does this to comply with existing call location regulations). Find Me 911, an organization that’s lobbying the FCC to push through the regulations, has a complete list of these available technologies on its website and insists that their implementation won’t pass costs onto consumers. NENA admits that extra time may be needed for companies to produce wireless handsets with certain technologies installed, but they still call the FCC’s five-year timeline “reasonable.”

It’s time for wireless providers to drop the delay tactics and support the FCC’s proposed regulations. Sign our petition today to urge the CEOs of AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile to get on board for women’s lives!

Photo courtesy of Flickr Astrid Westvang licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.



James Hildebrand is a senior at Amherst College and editor-in-chief of the independent student blog AC Voice. He is interning this summer at Ms. magazine.