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Faster help is better help

Oct. 21, 2019

A map background with overlaid dots displaying GIS terms like address points, street names and edge matching

During an emergency, it’s hard to think straight. When you call or text for help, the 911 dispatcher will want to know where you are, but unless you happen to be at home, your hurt and frightened brain may not be able to pull that information out of thin air. And what if you’re at a vacation rental? What if you’re on a county highway in the dark and you didn’t take note of the last mile marker you saw?

Unlike land lines, cell phones aren’t associated with any one place. But in 2018, wireless devices were used to make over 80 percent of 911 calls in Minnesota. Which means that our 102 public safety answering points (PSAPs) need to be able to determine the cell phone’s location if the caller can’t specify it.

Enter the Next Generation Geographic Information Systems (GIS) project. Its goal is to improve location accuracy for 911 dispatchers, allowing first responders to get to the scene more quickly. Right now, PSAPs use tabular databases such as the Master Street Address Guide. But our Emergency Communication Networks division is working to develop a GIS data set so that dispatchers can locate a 911 caller or texter down to their exact position.

ECN is partnering with the Minnesota Geospatial Information Office to work with counties, cities, and tribal nations to seamlessly stitch together the data set like a large puzzle. As big an undertaking as that is, though, it’s only one third of the collaborative effort to accurately locate 911 callers and texters.

The other two parts involve cell phone carriers and equipment. Carriers such as Verizon and AT&T will be implementing technology that can send location information to the correct dispatcher when a 911 call or text is made. The call-handling equipment the dispatchers use to answer 911 calls must also be upgraded. That way it can interact with the more sophisticated mapping system to plot the caller or texter’s location.

Improving the location accuracy for 911 calls and texts in Minnesota is a huge undertaking, but it will be worth all the hard work. The faster help can get to you, the more help they can provide.