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Jan 15, 2020 | In the News

2020 is the year when vertical location becomes a reality for public safety

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Last spring, we outlined how 3D location can increase situational awareness and improve operational efficiency for public safety responders. At the time, this was a somewhat hypothetical scenario as 3D location technology had been proven but not yet implemented. Since then 3D location capability has been available to application developers through an over-the-top capability.


‘Over the Top’ solutions are positioning techniques that expand on device-based location by incorporating additional sensor measurements and algorithms in an intelligent and robust way. However, public safety still needs wireless operators to implement vertical location capabilities into their networks for E911 purposes. Only then could the public-safety answering points (PSAPs) identify an emergency caller’s vertical location.

The likelihood of a wireless operator implementing this technology received a huge boost recently, when the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) adopted an E911 Z-axis mandate for wireless operators. With this mandate now in place and the first deployment milestone due by April 2021, 2020 promises to be the year when the wireless industry and public safety organizations focus on implementing vertical-location solutions for E911.

FCC provides a boost for 3D location in public safety

On November 22, 2019, the FCC voted to approve its long-anticipated Fifth Report and Order and Fifth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which deals with wireless E911 vertical-location accuracy requirements. In this order, the FCC built on its previous mandates for wireless operators to better identify emergency calls made from wireless devices.

The reasoning is clear—the US is transitioning ever more rapidly to a wireless society and away from landline phones. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the number of households with a landline phone has declined from 90 percent in 2004 to just over 40 percent currently, and this number will continue to drop.

Further, more of these emergency calls are being placed indoors in multi-story buildings where accurate wireless location has been challenged. While past mandates dealt with identifying wireless callers on the horizontal axis and later indoors, they had not addressed the need to identify callers on the vertical axis, which presents a significant challenge for first responders when the emergency call originates from a high-rise office or apartment building.

Location technology companies have made significant advances in the past few years to address this issue, as outlined in the August 2018 Z-axis Test Bed report issued by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA).

This test found that identifying the location of a wireless caller on the vertical axis was not only feasible, but it was accurate to within 3 meters, enabling identification of an emergency caller within one floor level. With this capability now proven, the FCC could now require Z-axis compliance by wireless operators, confident in the knowledge that the technology is commercially available.

The FCC Order specifically provides for the following:

  • Adopts a Z-axis accuracy metric of plus or minus 3 meters for 80% of wireless E911 calls from Z-axis capable handsets;
  • Requires wireless operators to validate through testing that their Z-axis technology meets this metric;
  • Requires operators to deploy Z-axis technology that meets this metric in the top 25 markets by April 3, 2021, and in the top 50 markets by April 3, 2023; and,
  • Extends privacy protections to Z -axis data conveyed with 911 calls

With this mandate now in place, 2020 is the year wireless operators will deploy 3D-location technology in their networks. From there, public-safety organizations—ranging from public-safety answering points (PSAPs) to police and fire departments—can plan for the changes associated with how they will use this new capability to serve the public.

Optimizing the use of vertical location in public safety

3D location promises to drive changes in the way first responders locate and assist emergency callers, decreasing response times while raising the public’s expectations.

Consider an emergency caller in a high-rise apartment in a major city who is incapacitated to the point where he cannot communicate his apartment number or his floor location to the 911 operator. With 3D location in place, the location of his wireless device is able to be identified vertically, so that first responders can quickly reach him.

How this information is ultimately used and displayed by the PSAP is up to the PSAPs. 2020 will bring this matter into focus with PSAPs, CAD vendors and application providers examining upgrades that will let them depict 3D location on a map used by PSAPS and field personnel.

First responders will receive a similar image on their tablets or other field equipment to ensure they can quickly pinpoint the caller and get him help. As with the PSAP system, first-responder organizations must also invest in their communications capabilities to facilitate the use of 3D location by field personnel.

Fortunately, many application providers are already offering solutions that allow a field organization to use existing smartphones to receive this information, regardless of which wireless network they utilize. This is crucial for any public-safety organization wishing to quickly deploy this capability via an app download, without having to swap out devices. These software-based deployments will enable the entire industry to quickly evolve and meet the FCC’s 2021 deadline.

Location technology will continue to evolve in 2020

While this implementation by the public-safety industry is underway, 2020 also will bring new ideas from public-safety stakeholders, including technology leaders, about how to further evolve indoor- and vertical-location accuracy and find a way to convert measurements beyond z-axis measurements, to floor levels and ultimately to true “dispatchable” location.

The FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking will prompt action on steps toward achieving the ultimate goal for public safety, which is providing first responders with a specific civic address (not just the floor number), including the specific door within a building. Components of this capability and the beginnings of supporting data exist today, but not to the extent that dispatchable location is feasible on a useful scale.

Requiring standardization and aggregation of huge amounts of data, this effort will be most effective through the creation of public-private partnerships that are able to utilize the latest technological advances while leveraging public information accessed with privacy safeguards in place. Much work remains to be done before dispatchable location can be used with confidence.

In the interim, existing floor level Z-axis measurements remain a major advancement for public safety, and one that will move quickly beyond the hypothetical during 2020.

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