“I can’t breathe,” 71-year-old Joan Lantz told a 911 dispatcher in Rock Hill, S.C. the night of Feb. 7, 2012.
The emergency call taker asked for an address, but Lantz, who lived in a nearby apartment, just repeated that she couldn’t breathe. The dispatcher told the woman to hold on while she tried to discern her location.
That would take more than 13 minutes, and even then, dispatchers could only narrow it to a broad area in Lantz’s apartment complex. Forty-four more minutes would pass before police officers kicked down the door of unit 101. They found Lantz on a couch, dead from respiratory failure—still clutching her cellphone.
A tragic anomaly? Not really. Lantz’s death is one of the more than 10,000 a year that the federal government estimates could be avoided if dispatchers arrived just 1 minute faster. But with more than 70 percent of 911 calls now coming from cellphones, it’s become harder to find people. Unlike landline calls, cellphones often don’t pinpoint exact locations because when calls are made from indoors or deep within cities, walls and concrete skyscrapers frequently block the GPS signals typically used to locate callers.
That’s why the Federal Communications Commission years ago began looking at more promising location technologies, including beacons that can locate callers on a specific floor, and triangulation technologies that can penetrate walls to find a caller within a hundred feet. Led by Chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC in February 2014 proposed tough new rules that would ultimately require carriers to locate most cellphone callers indoors.
But that didn’t happen. Carriers, led by AT&T and Verizon, organized a muscular year-long lobbying campaign that succeeded in weakening the rules. When the FCC passed the final regulations this past January, the percentages of calls that would have to deliver an accurate location were reduced, from 67 percent in the first two years to 40 percent. Removed from the rules: a requirement to deliver a location for callers in multi-story buildings. In its place: a condition that carriers within three years propose a way to measure vertical location and deploy it by 2023.
The carriers also got their way in pushing for a so-called Nationwide Emergency Address Database, which will be designed to provide a dispatchable address that includes a street address, apartment number, and floor for just 25 percent of the population.
AT&T had called the tougher proposed timelines “wholly unrealistic,” but critics claimed the FCC simply succumbed to well-funded spin. The carriers’ solution, said a former senior FCC official, “means more people will die.” Officials with AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile declined to comment.
The telecoms, and ultimately the FCC, ignored more than a dozen other associations representing first responders, the elderly, and the handicapped, all of which supported the tougher proposals. “The people going into fires risking their lives should be included in any negotiations…,” said Kevin O’Connor, of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “But unfortunately, in this case, that didn’t happen.”
Instead, the telecoms teamed up with the nation’s two most powerful dispatcher associations — the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO) and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). Several carriers, including AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have collectively given hundreds of thousands of dollars to APCO and NENA. The cash buys access to major conferences where corporate executives rub elbows with the associations’ senior 911 officials. The sponsorships, said Reed Hundt, a former FCC chairman, “create a serious conflict of interest.”
At a March APCO event held in Dallas, AT&T held a reception at its corporate headquarters, where APCO executives and policymakers had “opportunities to meet and greet with AT&T executives,” APCO’s program guide touted. It is at such soirees that policies begin to be formed, said James Thurber, an American University professor who has studied lobbying for decades. “These companies aren’t putting $100,000 out there unless they see some return…,” he said. “This isn’t philanthropy.”
APCO didn’t reply to requests for comment.
NENA chief Brian Fontes denies the corporate support influenced his association’s position, saying the money given by carriers, about 4 percent of total annual revenues, “is not going to make or break this organization.” Fontes said the solutions encapsulated in the FCC rules make sense because it relies on commercially available technology like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices, which have addresses.
But first responders and cellular technologists say this solution is flawed, because Wi-Fi can fail when tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes cause widespread blackouts. Critics also charge that relying on Wi-Fi would leave many elderly and low-income households with no way of being located when calling 911. According to the Pew Research Center, 48 percent of households that earn less than $30,000 a year have no Internet connection, meaning they have no Wi-Fi router.
Stephen Souder, the head of public safety communications for Fairfax County, Virginia, and a widely respected expert, said that while the politics of the FCC’s rulemaking was “frustrating,” he isn’t naïve to how Washington works. Souder was part of the agency’s first effort to write requirements for locating wireless callers in 1994, and several subsequent attempts. All the while, the system to locate callers “has gotten worse,” he said. That leaves him resigned to the fact that the latest rules aren’t likely to offer the best solution—and that more people will perish.
This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. Read more of their coverage of the telecommunications industry or follow them on Twitter.