Most of us feel safe having our cellphones on us, because we can always call for help in case of an emergency. Certain questions do arise when it comes to using a cellphone as a way to diffuse an undesirable or dangerous situation: Will the 911 operator know our exact location? What if the call drops? Did the 911 operator get the location?
The answer: probably not.
For industrial engineer Gerardo Payan, developing an app that enables cellphones to automatically send exact GPS positions to emergency dispatchers stemmed from a need to prevent tragedies from happening. Payan is CEO of the San Antonio-based tech company Conexer, which debuted the new free mobile 911 app M911,in both the Apple and Android stores.
Many are unaware that emergency dispatchers do not automatically receive a GPS location when a 911 call from a cellphone comes in. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recommends that people who call for emergency assistance immediately give the 911 operator their exact location and a callback number in case they are disconnected.
“I realized there is a great risk when a person calls 911 from a cellphone, because the dispatcher cannot locate the caller automatically and has to spend considerable time determining the caller’s location,” Payan told the Rivard Report. “This made me start thinking of ways I could help to optimize the 911 service.”
If your cellphone drops the call or if you are choking, distraught, in and out of consciousness after an accident, or in a dangerous situation where you cannot talk, you won’t be able to give 911 operators the vital information they need to assist you.
“Terrible tragedies have happened because the dispatcher could not locate the caller, especially if the emergency call is made in between two cell towers and the reception isn’t good enough to allow for triangulation of a precise location,” Payan added. “And if you say, have a heart attack inside a tall, multistory apartment building, the ambulance crew won’t know on which floor or in what apartment to find you.”
FCC data for 911 calls placed from cellphones in Washington, D.C. showed that “nine out of 10 wireless 911 calls made in D.C. in the first half of 2013 were delivered without the accurate location information needed to find callers.”
“It’s incredible to think that in 2016 we still don’t have a good 911 call system that can locate cellphone callers automatically,” Payan said.
M911 Locating and Alerting Features
With M911, your cellphone’s GPS data automatically sends your location to the 911 dispatcher. The technology Conexer developed even allows dispatchers to pinpoint the location of your cellphone down to the specific floor and suite or apartment in a multifloor building.
“In 2014, the company started working on a solution to this problem in San Antonio, in our offices across from the Dominion,” Payan said. “We wanted to support the emergency dispatchers with a technical solution to this widespread problem.”
The app goes one step further by automatically alerting the emergency contacts you set up in your profile, so you don’t have to worry about letting loved ones know what is happening as you’re on the call with 911.
“The M911 app works on any cellphone and sends alerts to designated family members in the heat of the moment in the middle of an emergency situation,” Payan explained. “Once you call 911, the app connects you and provides your exact GPS location to the dispatcher and sends text messages with a map showing your last known location to family members for up to 48 hours after the service is activated.”
The app works anywhere you have cellphone service, so it’s also helpful for travelers who may not speak the language of local emergency responders.
Mexico Promotes Use of M911
The U.S. Department of Commerce learned about the app’s utility and has started to promote the use of M911 in Mexico and other countries that would benefit from upgraded cellphone 911 service. Once the Department of Commerce reached out to its liaisons at each of the U.S. embassies, the Department of State came on board and promoted the use of this app to U.S. embassy personnel as well as travelers.
“We’ve tried to focus on large urban areas like San Antonio, Houston, New Braunfels, and Austin, but we’d like the app to be used widely across the globe, especially for those who travel,” Payan said.
Payan praised Casa San Antonio, a branch within the City of San Antonio’s International Relations Office, for providing essential support in connecting Conexer to Mexico’s C5, the command, control, communications, and computer quality center for the Mexican police’s federal district.
In November, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto ordered the consolidation of all existing emergency numbers and designated the new national emergency phone line as 911. One of a series of measures in response to the Iguala-Ayotzinapa mass student kidnapping in September 2014, all existing emergency numbers will be required to migrate to 911.
Before the consolidation, Mexico had multiple emergency numbers: 060 for local police, 061 for state and Federal District judicial police, 065 for the Red Cross, 066 for the national system for citizen emergencies, 068 for fire emergencies, and 080 for security and emergency calls.
Mexico’s new 911 number for both fixed line and mobile telephones will be operational come January 2017. Telecommunications service providers will be required to provide free access to the new emergency number. The implementation across Mexico will include promoting M911 in order to enable Mexican cellphone users to automatically notify emergency contacts and provide the 911 dispatchers with their cellphone’s precise location data.
When the Rivard Report asked how Conexer could offer the M911 app for free download, Payan went to the white board in his office to show us the numbers.
Next time you get your cellphone service bill, take a closer look. Most bills list a number of monthly service charges, one of which is the emergency response fee. This charge varies by state. In Texas, it’s a 50-cent monthly fee.
For illustrative purposes, Payan used the Texas fee as the standard. Some states charge less, most charge more.
He then showed me the GSMA intelligence website, which displays the current number of callers connecting on mobile phone calls. The afternoon we spoke, there were roughly 340 million people using their cellphones in the U.S.
To get a rough order of magnitude (ROM) estimate of how much is being collected in fees, Payan used the one-time average number of 340 million U.S. cellphone callers as a baseline. He multiplied that number by the (admittedly low) Texas emergency response fee and got a potential $170 million in collected charges per month. Remember, he said, this is a ‘back of the envelope’ ROM estimate which gives you a rough idea of how much money is being collected in monthly user fees on an ongoing basis.
What’s being done with that money? The FCC collects these fees and designates 50% or about $86 million of this ROM estimate example to reimburse emergency services for routing emergency calls to the cell tower closest to the caller.
Of the remaining $86 million in fees, 25% go to cellphone carriers and the remaining 25% are designated for technology upgrades.
“I want to ask why are the cellphone carriers getting 25% (of the emergency response fees) when they aren’t doing anything,” Payan asked. “(The cellphone carriers) don’t provide locating services for their cellphone customers.”
Payan’s hopes to receive a part of the remaining 25% designated for cellphone modernization in order to keep the M911 app free.
“Conexer is committed to supporting the social good by improving the quality of life through the use of technology,” Payan said. “We will keep evolving our applications to even higher levels to find more good uses for our technology.”
Top image: Screenshot of the M911 website. M911 is a free app that enables a cell phone to automatically notify emergency contacts and sends the 911 dispatcher the phone’s precise location.