Wireless 911

The number 911 is the designated universal emergency number in North America for both wireline and wireless telephone service. Dialing 911 puts the caller in immediate contact with a public safety answering point (PSAP) operator who arranges for the dispatch of appropriate emergency services—ambulance, fire, police, rescue—based on the nature of the reported problem.

Since its inception in 1968, this concept has amply demonstrated its value by saving countless lives in thousands of cities and towns across the United States and Canada. In a series of orders since 1996, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has taken action to improve the quality and reliability of 911 emergency services for wireless phone users by adopting rules to govern the availability of basic 911 services and the implementation of enhanced 911 (E911) for wireless services.

To further these goals, the agency has required wireless carriers to implement E911 service, subject to certain conditions and schedules. The wireless 911 rules apply to all cellular, broadband Personal Communications Service (PCS) and certain Specialized Mobile Radio (SMR) service providers. These carriers are required to provide to the PSAP the telephone number of the originator of a 911 call and the location of the cell site or base station receiving a 911 call.

This information assists in the provision of timely emergency responses both by providing some information about the general location from which the call is being received and by permitting emergency call takers to reestablish a connection with the caller if the call is disconnected.

All mobile phones manufactured for sale in the United States after February 13, 2000, that are capable of operating in an analog mode, including dual-mode and multimode handsets, must include a special method for processing 911 calls. When a 911 call is made, the handset must override any programming that determines the handling of ordinary calls and must permit the call to be handled by any available carrier, regardless of whether the carrier is the customer’s preferred service provider.

As of October 2001, wireless carriers were required to begin providing automatic location identification (ALI) as part of E911 service implementation, according to the following schedule:

  1. Begin selling and activating ALI-capable handsets no later than October 1, 2001.
  2. Ensure that at least 25 percent of all new handsets activated are ALI-capable no later than December 31, 2001.
  3. Ensure that at least 50 percent of all new handsets activated are ALI-capable no later than June 30, 2002.
  4. Ensure that 100 percent of all new digital handset activated are ALI-capable no later than December 31, 2002 and thereafter.
  5. By December 31, 2005, achieve 95 percent penetration of ALI-capable handsets among its subscribers.

Originally, the FCC envisioned that carriers would need to deploy network-based technologies to provide ALI. However, there have been significant advances in location technologies that employ new or upgraded handsets and that are based on the Global Positioning System (GPS). These methods are approved for implementing enhanced 911 services as well.

Emergency 911 services have become valuable tools in rendering prompt and appropriate assistance to people in critical need. Most states have laws that mandate prompt action on all calls received by a PSAP operator. Unfortunately, 911 systems are so taken for granted that many calls are not for emergencies at all, and expensive resources end up being expended needlessly on trivial pursuits.

PSAP operators now receive calls on such matters as garbage collection dates, late mail delivery, a leaky faucet or heater the landlord won’t fix, directions to stores and restaurants, and whether or not to see a lawyer for this or that problem. The 911 systems in some communities have become so bogged down with nonemergency calls that the subject is frequently addressed by public awareness campaigns in the print and broadcast media.