There is cause for rejoicing in the public-safety community due to the recent consent decree issued by the Federal Communications Commission regarding the Z-axis, which is a vital third element of 911 caller location that has been missing. But a closer read of the order indicates that the real celebration is probably months away.
The Z-axis represents further advancement of 911 caller location. The X and Y axes are very effective for getting emergency responders to the exact location of an emergency. But the Z-axis, which addresses vertical location, is essential for finding people in multilevel structures, such as parking garages and office buildings. Without Z-axis data, emergency responders often have to conduct floor-by-floor searches for victims, a time-consuming process that places victims and emergency responders at greater risk.
The FCC’s consent decree is somewhat curious. Its genesis can be found in previous orders dating back to 2015. This is when the FCC first adopted rules to improve location accuracy for indoor callers and included a roadmap for including the Z-axis. The details became more defined in November 2019 and April 2020. In 2019, the commission established a Z-axis location accuracy metric of 3 meters above and below the handset for 80 percent of wireless Enhanced 911 (E911) calls made using Z-axis-capable handsets. In 2020, the FCC required commercial mobile radio services (CMRS) providers to deploy vertical-location technology—either dispatchable location or Z-axis information—for wireless 911 calls in each of the top 25 cellular market areas (CMAs) by April 3, 2021.
Now, the consent decree order, issued on June 3, requires AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile to start delivering Z-axis data to emergency communications centers (ECCs) nationwide no later than seven days after the effective date of the order, or June 10. But it also gives each of the carriers 30 days to complete testing in one of its CMAs to establish the effectiveness of the vertical-location technology it will employ; 75 days to complete testing in a second CMA; and 90 days to submit a report to the FCC regarding the testing results. In addition, the FCC gave the carriers 180 days to work collaboratively—as well as with some combination of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APC), and the National Association of State 911 Administrators (NASNA)—to develop a proposal for educating ECC officials and telecommunicators on how to leverage Z-axis data.
All of this is more than a little confusing. Theoretically, Z-axis data could be popping up on telecommunicator screens all over the country, a full six months before the aforementioned educational process will begin—and that’s assuming that the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau accepts the proposal. Or maybe Z-axis data isn’t popping up on screens and still won’t for a while, despite the order—which also included a $100,000 fine for each of the big three carriers—no one really knows how this is going to play out.
Nevertheless—or maybe because of this uncertainty—there are a few things that ECC officials should be doing right now:
- Educate telecommunicators about the consent decree order and let them know that they might soon be seeing Z-axis data on their display screens.
- Develop an interim plan regarding this data and inform and train telecommunicators accordingly.
- Reach out to your computer-aided dispatch, 911 call-handling system, and mapping vendors to ensure that your systems are capable of receiving Z-axis data.
Certainly, the FCC’s consent decree order is good news for the public-safety community at large, and particularly the 911 community. The sooner that vertical-location capability is fully available to ECCs the better, and this order is a huge leap forward. But as with most things in life, the devils are in the details. Now is the time to take steps to make sure that your center is ready when Z-axis data starts to arrive, a day that truly will be worthy of celebration. In the meantime, MCP has numerous subject-matter experts uniquely qualified to support your efforts in this regard—please reach out.
Molly Falls is an MCP senior technology specialist. She can be emailed at MollyFalls@MissionCriticalPartners.com.