What first responders need from geolocation

First responders rely on geolocation technologies more than ever before. But is the data they receive from those technologies actually useful?

We’re starting to get some answers. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently released a fascinating data set compiled by its Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) program. NIST interviewed over 7,000 first responders across the country, including fire fighters, law enforcement officers, EMTs, and 911 dispatchers. 

The results tell a very interesting story about how geolocation technology is actually used by first responders in the field. 

Can first responders find you?

Perhaps the most telling (and alarming) piece of data NIST collected comes from 911 dispatchers. 80% of 911 calls come from mobile devices. Matching those devices to a physical location is known to be a significant challenge, but the extent of that challenge is not well documented. 

The NIST survey shows that the challenge may be more significant than even those in the industry realized. A whopping 91% of 911 dispatchers indicated that they are unable to accurately track a caller’s location at least some of the time. Just under one-third went even further, saying that caller locations are elusive “most of the time” or “always”. 

The problem with geolocation extends to the technology first responders use on scene as well. 58% of law enforcement officials surveyed by NIST reported problems with the mapping or navigation applications used in mobile data terminals (MDTs). 70% of all first responders reported that the maps and navigation databases they use have missing or inaccurate information.

Using geolocation in the field

The NIST data also points to an interesting variation in usage patterns for geolocation tools first responders use in the field. 

EMTs use mapping applications to locate victims more than any other first responders, with 57% saying they use map applications “always” or “a lot”. Fire fighters reported slightly less reliance on mapping applications, with 47% using them “a lot”. (The results were higher for specific applications which show where fire hydrants are located, however.)

Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the data to suggest why different first responders use map applications at different rates. Maybe it’s that some first responders have memorized their territories to the extent that their “mental maps” are the most reliable indicators of location. Or maybe some have apps that are more reliable and provide more actionable information. At the very least, the NIST data points to the need for more study on this particular topic.

What first responders say about geolocation

The NIST data isn’t all numbers; a helpful trove of qualitative comments was also included in the data set released to the public. Many of these responses focus on geolocation as a particular challenge for first responders. 

One first responder spoke about the vague data used to locate cell phone callers in the field. “Our technology in terms of locating people is just not there. I’ve used the map as a reference, but based off of the cell tower that you’re hitting off of I don’t know where you are. You could be anywhere…[even in] different jurisdictions.”

A 911 dispatcher detailed the often painful, harrowing process of finding out where someone is: “The most important question is always, ‘where are you’? Where is the location? I always ask try to get the street address. If they don’t have a street address or they don’t know, I ask for the closest intersection. If they don’t know the intersection, I’ll ask for like a hundred block or something like that. Then I’ll ask them for landmarks as a last resort, if they really don’t know where they are. I don’t like using landmarks because [it’s] very subjective and based off of my own experience.”

Clearly, first responders are looking for solutions, as another 911 dispatcher noted: “Location is the most important thing that we always need to find out. You need to know that. We need to know where you are, and where we need to be.”

Moving toward a solution

Here at NextNav we’re working to fill the location data gap so clearly voiced by first responders in the NIST study. 

Using the framework recently put forward by the FCC, NextNav is rolling out its Pinnacle service to provide accurate vertical location data for the first time. This service will be a huge time saver for first responders in multi-story buildings and complex urban streetscapes. 

NextNav’s solution will also help with situational awareness in chaotic emergency response scenes, allowing incident commanders to quickly locate first responders and coordinate their actions.

We’re working closely with wireless carriers, device providers, and application developers to bring this service to life – a game changer for first responders who are thirsty for more accurate, actionable geolocation data.