AT&T rolls out location tracking on emergency calls from Minnesota cellphones

AT&T Co. rolled out a system in Minnesota and nearby states this week to more accurately pinpoint callers to 911 and alert the nearest emergency service.

The company, which operates the nation’s third-largest mobile network by subscribers, worked with Intrado Corp. to pick up GPS signals from cellphones calling 911 to route the call to the correct emergency center.

GPS signals can be tracked down to about a 50-yard radius, giving emergency responders a better read on where callers are. Previously, calls on 911 relied on location data from cell towers, which have a signal radius of up to 10 miles.

With the more accurate readings, emergency responders should be able to respond more quickly. For years, response times have been affected by the need for dispatchers to get a better fix on a caller’s location, then identify which emergency service should respond, a process known as a 911 transfer.

“We’ve been providing location information to (emergency centers) for well over 20 years,” Joe Marx, an AT&T vice president, said via email. “Now, we are delivering more accurate information earlier to Intrado so that they can determine the appropriate routing.”

AT&T deployed the service in 16 states in the Upper Midwest and far west, along with Guam. It should be available nationwide later this year. It is free to AT&T and Cricket Wireless customers and to emergency call centers.

The advances in use of mobile phones since the 1990s forced an overhaul to the operations of emergency call centers. When those centers adopted the 911 number standard in the 1970s and 1980s, callers relied on landline services that allowed their location to be easily identified.

Today, nearly nine out of 10 calls to an emergency center come from a caller on a mobile phone. In many places, the dispatcher gets an approximation of the caller’s location.

AT&T said that by adding GPS technology to 911 caller tracking, dispatchers will have location information that’s as accurate as calls that come in via landline.

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