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BT, EE, HTC narrow down location of 999 emergency calls from mobiles

BT has joined with EE and HTC to launch a service that can pinpoint the source of 999 calls from mobile phones, 4,000 times more accurately than current systems.
Written by Colin Barker, Contributor

You are worried, even frightened, and you are trying to dial 999 as quickly as possible and while you are doing this you are mentally going through your address so you can explain to the emergency services exactly where they will find you. You live in Cross Street but which Cross Street? There are three in your borough.

Where once the emergency services could have quickly tracked you from your phone number, now about 60 per cent of 999 and 112 calls in the UK are made from a mobile making it even harder to locate callers.

BT has worked with the mobile service provider EE and the phone handset provider HTC to come up with a system that can track calls made from a mobile 4,000 times more accurately than the current system and to a radius of 30 metres or less.

BT emergency High res
BT, EE and HTC link up to provide an emergency service

This new geographical location system, called Advanced Mobile Location (AML), is claimed to be able to provide 999 operators with pinpoint location data. It can identify the source of a mobile phone emergency call to within 0.003 square kilometres - "less than half the size of a football pitch" - instead of several square kilometres, BT said.

The service needs a special AML enabled smartphone to work. At the moment this means, calls made on the EE network on all new HTC phones, including HTC One mini 2, HTC One (M8), HTC Desire 610, HTC One and HTC One mini but the three companies says that they, have been working together with the other UK mobile networks so that the same approach can be used by all networks and manufacturers services free of charge.

But does this mean that the service can be used to track people? "The system doesn’t track a call," BT told ZDNet. "Access to this location information is securely available only at the time a 999/112 emergency call is made to assist the police, ambulance, fire and coastguard services. The number of a mobile (or landline) call is automatically available when a 999 call is made."

When an emergency call is made with an AML-enabled smartphone, the phone automatically activates its location service and sends its position by text message to the 999 service. "On average this is within 18 seconds," BT said.

"This text message is not visible on the handset and is not charged for. The text is automatically matched to the voice call and compared to the network’s cell-based information to ensure it is valid. The location is then sent to the appropriate emergency service, supplementing the cell-based information. The text consists of the longitude and latitude and a radius within which the caller is expected to be."

According to the three companies involved, the service is expected to be available on HTC handsets on other networks "shortly" and a number of other handset manufacturers, "have started to develop it for models to be introduced in the near future", the companies said.

A heavily and intensely used service

The phone service that BT runs on behalf of the UK's emergency services is heavily used and handles some 22 million calls a year or 60,000 a day. Currently, emergency services are only able to identify approximate locations of callers to within a few square kilometres.

As a result:

  • 999 calls from a mobile take 30 seconds longer to handle on average than calls from landlines; it can take three minutes of extra questioning of often stressed or injured victims to determine the location.
  • In an estimated 36,000 critical incidents reported by mobile every year, the emergency services spend 30 minutes or more searching for the location.
  • In around 330,000 emergency calls a year, the caller is unable to speak to the operator – having only imprecise cell information for the location when the call is from a mobile can prevent the emergency services from responding.

In a statement Sue Lampard, president of British Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, said: "The 999 service has remained voice-centric since 1937 – whilst multimedia technology has developed around it. In the twenty-first  century it is hard to believe that the UK emergency services are unable to receive good location data – they are reliant on the caller to tell them. This is the first of a number of steps that need to be taken to bring our 999 technology up to date with society."

The consortium said that there is also interest in AML from other countries in Europe, but did not provide any details.

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