Locating First Responders in Distress – The Need for Precise Vertical Location

By: Erik Loberg, Director, Solutions & Product Management for Public Safety

Just a few weeks ago, we lost another brave firefighter when he unexpectedly went down and was unable to be located within a structure fire. A colleague of mine, a firefighter himself, just happens to work in the city where this incident took place. He saw the fire and jumped on his scanner to listen in on what was happening. Unfortunately, he heard the “mayday” call – and then lived through the tragedy that resulted when the firefighter was unable to be located in time to save his life.

As I discussed this tragedy with my colleague, we talked about how this does not need to keep happening. Technology is available today, that if used, could have likely changed the outcome for this firefighter, the fire department, and his family. We should not apply a different standard to First Responders in distress than when a citizen in distress calls 9-1-1.  We as an industry must strive for equitable treatment of not only those calling for help, but for those who risk their lives.

9-1-1 Wireless Caller Location
In 2015, the FCC adopted comprehensive requirements and deadlines to improve location accuracy for wireless 911 calls made from indoors. These new rules required wireless service providers to provide a dispatchable location (including additional information such as floor level) or coordinate-based vertical location information. In 2019, the FCC added a vertical location accuracy metric of +/- 3 meters (defined as “floor-level”) 80% of the time for wireless 911 calls – with a mandate to have z-axis for 911 implemented in the top 25 cellular market areas by 2021. This requirement was in recognition that more than 80 percent or more of 9-1-1 calls are coming from mobile phones, and that we spend more than 80 percent or more of our lives indoors. So, what does this have to do with First Responders in distress?

Changes in Technology
In the product world, we talk about several drivers of technology change and innovation. In the case of wireless location technologies, the FCC requirement for locating 9-1-1 callers has driven innovation to meet the new location requirements, both x, y and z. As a result, there are proven technologies from companies available today that provide accurate z-axis location within +/- 3 meters more than 90% of the time. These technologies can leverage the existing chipsets and barometric pressure sensors in cell phones. NextNav’s Pinnacle technology was independently tested in 2018, showing a “floor-level” accuracy 94% of the time.

Over the last few years, there has been a proliferation of mobile apps for First Responders (from my last check, there were 30 apps available in the Apple App Store). This is a combination of apps developed both by and for Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system providers, or apps developed independently of CAD systems that can be integrated with CAD systems. Both are designed to increase communication and provide situational awareness with responder location services.  These applications could leverage the same technology used for providing accurate z-axis for 9-1-1 caller location, and apply it to First Responder location.

The other change that has occurred is the proliferation of IoT devices. The main difference between the IoT devices and the cellular devices is that the IoT devices are not running iOS or Android operating systems. However, these devices, much like cell phones, contain chip sets and other technology (such as barometric pressure sensors) to enable location tracking. This enables the IoT devices to also leverage the same proven technologies available today that can provide accurate z-axis location within +/- 3 meters over 90% of the time.

Applying Changes in Technology to First Responders in Distress
If we put this all together, technology and innovation as a result of wireless 9-1-1 caller location, First Responder mobile apps and the proliferation of IoT devices, there is a solution that can and should be deployed for the safety of First Responders. If the First Responders are equipped with either a cell phone using a mobile app developed specifically for Public Safety or an IoT device with location services including z-axis (radios, body worn cameras, and others), the location of First Responders can be tracked and shared with other responders, incident commanders, and communication centers for purposes of locating a First Responder in distress. The result and accuracy can be the same as with a 9-1-1 caller.

The Challenges With Location for First Responders
There are some challenges with the above solutions, and we must put them on the table. Some of them are technology related, others are not. There are tradeoffs, so let’s talk about them.

Technology Challenges:
– GPS is very inaccurate in urban settings where over 80% of population resides.
– Devices and capabilities are limited due to design restrictions.
– PASS devices and location transmit capabilities are highly limited due to digitization preferences.

It would be irresponsible of me to dismiss these challenges. And there is always the cost/benefit analysis -– of how much will it cost and what will be the value. The question to ponder is, if the location is not 100 percent accurate, is it better than what is used today, which is nothing? The FCC mandate for 9-1-1 caller location is for z-axis is +/- 3 meters 80% of the time – and there are technologies that exceed this requirements. Companies can – and should – apply that same measurement to First Responder location.

The other challenges are related to the responders themselves and the closely held principles that we have heard for over the 20 plus years that I have been part of this industry:
– I don’t want to be tracked all the time.
– If it does not work all the time, then I don’t want it.
– We don’t want to carry another device.

From what we have seen and with the changes going on in this country, including a greater focus on the safety and security of First Responders, the tide is changing on the first bullet point. There are technical ways to manage this. These methods can be explored outside of this discussion. Regarding the second bullet point, I will refer back to the “question to ponder” noted above when discussing technology challenges. Shouldn’t something that is close enough to save a life be good enough?

Applying the 9-1-1 Caller Location Standard to First Responders
So, I want to take you back to the original question: “Why do we apply a different standard when it is First Responders in distress, than when a citizen is in distress and calls 9-1-1? Is locating a First Responder in distress any less important than locating a 9-1-1 caller in distress?” With the assumption the answer is “No”, and a strong “NO”, then let’s as an industry start applying the same technologies for location accuracy of a First Responder in distress as we do a 9-1-1 caller in distress.