Wed | Jul 18, 2018

Apple sets up iPhones to relay location for 911 calls

Published:Wednesday | July 11, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces the iPhone 6S and iPhone 6 Plus S during a media event at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco in 2015. Apple will release its latest iOS12 software update in September 2018.

Apple is trying to drag the United States' antiquated system for handling 911 calls into the 21st century.

If it lives up to Apple's promise, the iPhone's next operating system will automatically deliver quicker and more reliable information pinpointing the location of 911 calls to about 6,300 emergency response centres in the US

Apple is trying to solve a problem caused by the technological mismatch between a 50-year-old system built for landlines and today's increasingly sophisticated smartphones.

An estimated 80 per cent of roughly 240 million emergency calls in the US this year will come from mobile phones, most of which are capable of precisely tracking where their users are.

Emergency calling centres, however, don't get that detailed location information from mobile 911 calls. Instead, they get the location of the cellular tower transmitting the call, and must rely on other methods to figure out where the caller is.

 

Not accurate

 

That can take up precious time and often isn't very accurate, especially when calls come from inside a building. Emergency responders are sometimes dispatched a mile or more away from a caller's location.

Apple's upcoming 911 feature relies on technology from RapidSOS, a New York start-up. The approach developed by Apple and RapidSOS sends location data from an iPhone to a 'clearinghouse' accessible to emergency calling centres. Only the 911 calling centres will be able to see the data during the call, and none of it can be used for non-emergency purposes, according to Apple.

Individual call centres will each have to embrace the technology required to communicate with the RapidSOS clearinghouse. Some centres already have the compatible software, according to Apple, but others will have to install upgrades to their existing software.

Apple expects calling centres for large metropolitan areas to upgrade more quickly than those in rural areas.

Tom Wheeler, a former chairman for the Federal Communications Commission, believes Apple's new approach for locating 911 calls will set a new industry standard. "This is going to save a lot of lives," said Wheeler, now a visiting professor at Harvard University. He said he hopes other phone makers will follow Apple's lead.

The planned changes were announced in Nashville, Tennessee during a 911 convention. They'll be part of iOS 12, the next version of Apple's iPhone software, which the company will release in September as a free update.