911 centers often struggle to locate cellphone callers, but new technology from Google could improve the U.S. system.
Google quietly ran a test of new technology to make it easier for 911 operators to locate cellphone callers, and 911 centers that participated said the results were promising.
The nation’s existing 911 system, which turns 50 this month, has struggled with the explosion of cellphones. The vast majority of 911 calls these days are made using a cellphone, but the location of the caller is hard to pinpoint. Federal regulators estimate shaving a minute off response times could save as many 10,000 lives each year.
Google’s test covered tens of thousands of 911 calls in several states during December and January. For a random sample of 911 callers using an Android smartphone, the devices’ location data was sent directly to 911 call takers.
Normally, wireless carriers are responsible for delivering location information, but the estimated location is usually less accurate than the blue dot consumers see on apps like Google Maps.
Public-safety officials have pressured tech giants like Alphabet Inc.’s GOOGL 2.10% Google and Apple Inc. in recent years to make their rich location data available to 911.
Google conducted its trial with two companies that have connections into 911 centers, West Corp. and a startup called RapidSOS. RapidSOS said its portion of the trial involved about 50 911 centers covering some 2.4 million people in Texas, Tennessee and Florida. Location data in more than 80% of the 911 calls using Google’s technology were more accurate than the carrier data in the first 30 seconds of a call, according to RapidSOS.
Google’s data provided an average location estimate radius of 121 feet, RapidSOS said, while carrier data averaged 522 feet. Carrier data also took longer to reach 911 centers, the company said.
The companies and West Corp. are expected to discuss the trials at a 911 industry conference this week. West declined to comment.
911 directors that participated in the trial said the technology is a major improvement.
“There was a big difference,” said Jennifer Estes, 911 Director in Tennessee’s Loudon County, about 30 miles southwest of Knoxville.
In one instance, dispatchers were able to send help to a caller who didn’t speak English, Ms. Estes said.
Without the accurate data, “we would have had to keep working with her to figure out where she was,” she added. “In an emergency, obviously, seconds save lives.”
Bob Finney III, director of communications for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office in south Florida, said the pilot helped solve a different problem: People who are so flustered during an emergency that they inadvertently tell 911 operators the wrong location.
“We can validate what the caller is saying,” Mr. Finney said. “We’ve never been able to do that because it’s never been good enough.”
The trial wasn’t without hiccups. Emergency calls during the trial were supposed to include data from both wireless carriers and Google, but about 50,000 calls failed to include the carrier data, Google said. The glitch was identified by AT&T Inc., which was unaware the trial was going on, people familiar with the matter said, and Google modified its pilot after the problem was discovered.
Google’s location technology is currently active in 14 countries, primarily in Europe. Google has said it hopes to deploy the technology broadly across the U.S. some time this year.
Apple, which has said it would activate similar technology in other countries, declined to comment about its plans for the U.S.