Apple has spent much of its promotional push behind iOS 12 so far focused on features that range from silently useful, like Safari’s new privacy powers, to off-puttingly quirky, like animoji tongue-tracking. But on Monday the company detailed an upcoming iPhone upgrade with real-world consequences: It will communicate your exact location to 911 operators when you call, saving valuable time when every second matters.
To do so, Apple has partnered with RapidSOS, a startup that focuses on upgrading the byzantine backends of the nation’s roughly 6,500 emergency call centers. The move won’t improve every call to 911 overnight, but it’s as big a step as anyone has taken so far to fix a problem decades in the making.
Location, Location, Location
To understand the impact of the Apple and RapidSOS solution, it helps to know the roots of the problem. For that, you need to go back to the advent of the emergency call system, which dates back to the late 1960s.
It seems reasonable to spare you the full history of telecom-based emergency response solutions. The upshot, though, is this: Everything about the infrastructure that underpins 911 was built for landlines. The data associated with incoming calls is limited to 512 bytes, which RapidSOS CEO Michael Martin notes is less than what traveled along the first transatlantic cable.
‘The sooner you get there the greater the probability of providing potentially life-saving services.’
Brian Fontes, National Emergency Number Association
In other words, there’s typically no room for any information beyond someone’s voice. For years, that was good enough, in large part because call centers could tap into the local phone company’s billing database to identify the address associated with the incoming number. But with more than 80 percent of incoming emergency calls originating from a cell phone in some areas, according to the National Emergency Number Association, that’s no longer especially useful. Instead, operators are often left with the tricky job of discerning not just what’s wrong but where, in the course of an often panicked conversation.
“You have 240 million 911 calls a year, and we still struggle to locate them. We don’t even get the caller’s name, typically,” says Martin, referring to the call center’s plight.
Knowing a distressed caller’s exact location has the obvious benefit of being able to dispatch the right response team quickly and efficiently. But it also helps save time before the call gets connected in the first place. If you’re in Washington, DC, say, and your carrier thinks you’re in Arlington, Virginia, your call could go to the wrong state and have to be rerouted.
“Any time you have to reroute a call, you lose time and you lose those seconds that count,” says NENA CEO Brian Fontes. “It’s well known that if you can reach someone who is in need, the sooner you get there the greater the probability of providing potentially life-saving services.”
In fact, the Federal Communications Commission has estimated that improving location services for 911 could save more than 10,000 lives annually. Which means the better question might be: What took so long?
The push for better emergency call location services dates back to the late 90s, when the FCC instructed carriers to provide location data at an accuracy of between 50 and 300 meters; in 2015, it stepped up the requirement to 50-meter accuracy for 80 percent of all indoor calls by 2020.
That onus would logically fall on the carriers; they are, after all, who the FCC directs its requirements toward. But whether through a lack of tools or motivation, or both, they’ve been slow to advance the cause. Carriers typically rely on triangulating cell towers and a smartphone’s GPS signal, but that method can only get you so far (or so close, as the case may be), especially in crowded or indoor areas.
‘It’s just very challenging to get it all the way through.’
Michael Martin, RapidSOS
Apple and Google, the world’s two dominant mobile software providers, have gotten involved only in the last few years. In 2015, Apple introduced its Hybridized Emergency Location technology, which combines on-device data with cell tower information to more precisely estimate a 911 caller’s location. Google, too, has a supplemental service called Android Emergency Location Services that achieves the same basic result. ELS is currently available in 15 countries around the world.
The patchwork nature of the US emergency call center system, though, has made it difficult for HELO and ELS to gain traction on their own.
“Apple attempted to push HELO through the legacy system, and it’s just very challenging to get it all the way through,” says RapidSOS’s Martin, who notes that the US’s 6,500 call centers run more than 25,000 different software systems, and work with more than 70,000 first-responder agencies. “It’s an enormous fragmentation of different systems.”
Instead of going it alone, Apple decided to route its HELO efforts through RapidSOS, which has already partnered with major public safety software companies like Motorola and Raytheon. A simple software update, Martin says, provides a secure IT data link between your device and those systems, which allows for rich information to pass through. In this case, that means location, but it can also account for even more; in a partnership with Uber, for instance, RapidSOS enables the automatic sharing of the make, model, and color of a vehicle. The information is end-to-end encrypted, shared only during a live 911 call, and only with the call center.
“That’s one of the major things we’re pushing with Apple, is driving every 911 operator in the country to install this,” says Martin, who notes that smaller or more rural call centers may not even know that RapidSOS exists, and that it’s free for them to install. (RapidSOS makes its money from partners calls originate from, like Apple and Uber.)
Google, too, recently completed a real-world pilot with ELS and RapidSOS; the technology saved valuable time when a non-English speaker couldn’t convey their address, and when a panicked caller—who had severed two of her fingers—gave an incorrect location. Google says it’s continuing to work toward a US launch.
Enabling this technology, even on platform as pervasive as iOS, doesn’t solve the problem entirely. Lots of people don’t have iPhones, or smartphones of any stripe. With this feature, though, Apple will instantly enable better location for tens of millions of iPhone owners. It leapfrogs what carriers have so far been able to provide. More importantly, its market power could convince the emergency response centers that haven’t yet updated their systems for richer data transfers to do so.
“Having that type of market power is a huge, huge, massive boost to improving location accuracy,” says Fontes. “I couldn’t be happier, to be quite truthful.”