Companies are working to improve the aging 911 system. Above, a firefighter in New York City last year. PHOTO: MARK LENNIHAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Three former leaders of the Federal Communications Commission are investing in a startup that seeks to solve one of 911’s biggest problems: Operators often can’t see the exact location of cellphone callers.
Thomas Wheeler, who left the agency earlier this year, felt regulations adopted during his tenure didn’t do enough to solve the problem. Passed in 2015, the rules gave wireless carriers six years to develop technology that could still be imprecise during 1 out of 5 calls.
“I thought I ought to put my money where my mouth is,” said Mr. Wheeler, who is also taking on an official advisory role at the startup, called RapidSOS. The company is building a database that can link the rich location data from smartphones and other internet-connected devices into the call-taking software inside 911 centers.
Also investing are Julius Genachowski, who was FCC chairman from 2009 to 2013, and Dennis Patrick, who ran the agency in the late 1980s. They are part of a group of backers, including the investment arm of Motorola Solutions Inc., putting $14 million into the New York-based startup, which has 37 employees.
The investment highlights the continued struggle to improve the aging 911 system, which was developed for landline telephones in the late 1960s. While calls made from landlines deliver an exact address, 911 operators only receive a location estimate for cellphone callers that can be as wide as a few hundred yards. The FCC estimates 10,000 people die each year as a result.
That stands in contrast to the location information available on smartphones. The blue dot on Google Maps, for instance, is often accurate to just a few yards. Google Maps primarily relies on the phone’s GPS, its proximity to Wi-Fi hot spots and triangulation between cell towers. Wireless carriers—which are responsible for providing location information to 911—primarily use just GPS and cell tower triangulation.
RapidSOS is run by Michael Martin PHOTO: JOSÉ FONT BULLRICH
RapidSOS is run by Michael Martin, 30 years old, who became interested in 911 shortly after moving to New York City in 2012. While walking home late one night, he thought he was being followed. Rather than dial 911 and talk to an operator, his first instinct was to summon a taxi via the Uber app.
Afterward, “I was like, ‘There ought to be an app for 911,’” he said. Mr. Martin quit his job at a venture-capital fund and enrolled at Harvard University so he could explore the idea.
In 2014, Mr. Martin launched a 911 app, now called Haven, with co-founder Nick Horelik. But after talking with more than 100 of public-safety officials during a 2014 road trip across the country, he soon learned an app wasn’t the right approach.
“I was one of the biggest critics,” said retired Rear Adm. David Simpson, who met Mr. Martin several years ago when he was in charge of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. Now, Mr. Simpson has joined with RapidSOS as a paid adviser. “They have listened and learned.”
An app is a bad idea, Mr. Simpson says, because it would be hard to ensure that the roughly 6,500 answering centers in the U.S.—many using different technologies—could receive the app’s calls and other data. If it fails, who would be liable?
The FCC recently sought public comments on 911 apps after the National Association of State 911 Administrators raised alarms about security features app makers offer to consumers that might not work.
Christy Williams, the head of 911 in the area surrounding Dallas, was one of the first to share her skepticism about apps with Mr. Martin. She’ll never forget his answer: “We’re a bunch of geeks who can make any technology happen and we can make what you need,” she recalls.
Mr. Martin refocused RapidSOS on the database, which is now integrating with companies such as Motorola Solutions and Airbus DS Communications that make call-answering software used by 911 operators. Once activated, the 911 answering systems will be able to ping the RapidSOS database for better location and other data, such as health information supplied by the user, after a cellphone call arrives.
The final hurdle is persuading handset makers like Apple Inc. and AlphabetInc.’sGoogle to update their smartphones so that when someone dials 911 the device automatically populates the RapidSOS database with the caller’s more precise location. Google and Apple declined to comment.
RapidSOS says the database will be free for 911. It hopes to make money by charging car makers or alarm monitoring companies to integrate with it so those devices could pass rich data to 911 if an emergency is detected.
RapidSOS isn’t the only company working on 911 location technology. And wireless carriers hope their solution will be running by 2018. The carriers’ plan is to log the location of Wi-Fi hot spots and other devices to augment GPS data.
In trials on test devices late last year in Texas, RapidSOS was able to deliver location information to the 911 center that was more accurate than what the wireless carriers delivered. In one case, RapidSOS targeted the caller within a few feet while the carrier data was off by about 1,000 yards, said Rodger Mann, the 911 mapping expert for the district.
“They’re onto something here,” said Steve Souder, who ran 911 in Fairfax County Virginia for years. “Anything is better than what we have now.”