Australian emergency services seek phone GPS access

Australian emergency service agencies want access to GPS data on phones to locate callers in emergencies, but Telstra has said it is up to users to ensure that GPS applications are turned on.

Emergency services organisations would like to get GPS data for people calling Triple Zero in emergencies on mobile devices, but Telstra has said it would have to be something that users turn on.

In calling Triple Zero from a fixed line, the operator is able to know the exact location of the caller. As Australians move away from fixed-line phone services to the use of mobiles, a challenge for the Triple Zero service has been in determining the exact location of callers. According to Telstra, 67 percent of all calls to Triple Zero now come from mobile devices.

A recent change implemented by Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone now gives Triple Zero operators automatic access to the cell tower location of callers who aren't able to identify their location during the call.

But in its submission to the government's review of the Triple Zero service, the New South Wales government said that this information is only a rough estimate of a person's location, and that phone GPS data would be much more reliable.

"This data is only a triangulation of cell towers for the individual mobile phone, which may only result in a location in an area of some distance. This would be problematic in a location with only one tower in a rural area. A further enhancement that would resolve the problem would be the ability for the ESO [emergency service operator] to access the GPS coordinates of a phone, which would then allow an exact location of the phone," the NSW government said in its submission.

"Whilst location details for smartphones can be verbalised if a person calling knows how to access the details and can tell the Triple Zero operator, these same details may not be available if the person does not know how to verbalise a GPS coordinate or is unable to verbalise due to injury or has a language barrier."

Telstra estimated in its submission that the local information accuracy from cell towers can be between 100 metres and 20 kilometres, while GPS location accuracy is between 50 and 100 metres.

The Emergency+ smartphone app allows Triple Zero to get access to a person's GPS information, but Telstra said that access to the information is dependent on whether the device has GPS capability turned on, whether there is GPS satellite coverage, and whether the mobile provider has access to the GPS information.

One major problem is that it is generally up to the mobile device manufacturer to ensure that GPS information is available, according to Telstra.

Vodafone's submission argues that contact for emergency services should be extended beyond the traditional voice call out to SMS, MMS, social media, and video streaming.

The Western Australian Department of Fire and Emergency Services said that technological improvements to communication should be embraced by Triple Zero.

"Technology-driven communication should be viewed as an enhancement, not a hindrance, as it has the potential to enhance ESOs with improved emergency management information, and the development of a common operating picture."

Telstra said, however, that voice calls should remain the primary method for communicating with emergency services, and that SMS or video calls could be used when voice calling is not possible or practical -- such as in domestic violence situations, or when there is a home intrusion.

But before that happens, Telstra said operators will need to be retrained. The NSW government said operators must be ready to accommodate new technologies, but admitted that some investment would have to be made to get systems and staff members ready for the change.

The Triple Zero Awareness Group said in its submission that regardless of how a person contacts Triple Zero, they must know how to use the service, and has called for a properly funded Triple Zero service to educate the public.