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New tool expected to improve accuracy in locating wireless 911 callers

Public Information Officer:
January 20th, 2022
Major Kevin Tieman,
Cass County Sheriff’s Office

Pinpointing the precise location of a 911 caller who uses a wireless phone can sometimes be a challenge for dispatchers and first responders. Beginning this month, public safety answering points (PSAPs) in the nine-county Greater Kansas City area have access to a new tool that can help.

For years, area PSAPs have relied on technology that provides dispatchers with a map showing a wireless 911 caller’s location based on information from nearby cell towers and wireless carriers. Triangulating signals from several towers can result in a general location – typically within 50 to 300 meters of the caller – but in life-threatening emergencies, even 50 meters can require first responders to waste precious seconds trying to find the caller.

RapidSOS supplements current call-location technology by using a network of data sources to more precisely locate the caller’s device. It is fully integrated into the mapping software in use by dispatchers across the region.

“When companies like Google and Apple collect data for their map applications, they also collect data about nearby WiFi networks and hotspots,” said Hassan Al-Rubaie, public safety technical services manager for the Mid-America Regional Council. “RapidSOS can locate a wireless device by its proximity to nearby WiFi signals, even if the phone is not connected to them.”

Dispatchers will now be able to see points on a map for both the carrier location identified by cell tower or GPS networks, and the device-based RapidSOS location. RapidSOS technology is integrated into Apple iPhones using iOS 12, which went into general release last week. Google is also activating the technology on Android devices. On either Apple or Android phones, calls placed using the emergency call function through the Uber app will provide an enhanced location using RapidSOS.

“This has the potential to save lives,” said Eric Winebrenner, MARC public safety communications program director. “In some situations, such as car accidents, the caller may not know his or her exact location, and anything we can do to help first responders get to the scene quickly is going to make a big difference. This new technology may not work on every device or in every situation, but the more we can do to try to locate callers, the better.”

RapidSOS offers its location technology to public safety agencies at no charge. The Kansas City region joins other 911 systems across the nation already using the system, including Denver, Colorado; Maricopa County, Arizona; Collier County, Florida; and Elkhart County, Indiana.

“We’ve had a state-of-the-art 911 system for the Kansas City region since 1983,” said Winebrenner. “RapidSOS will help keep us on the cutting edge of next generation 911 technology.”

MARC administers the regional 911 system for Greater Kansas City, which encompasses 44 public safety answering points in nine counties: Cass, Clay, Jackson, Platte and Ray counties in Missouri, and Johnson, Leavenworth, Miami and Wyandotte counties in Kansas.

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