Back in 2015, Apple introduced an advanced location-based emergency search tool for iPhone dubbed HELO (Hybridized Emergency Location), which utilizes cell tower signals in conjunction with iPhone’s GPS and Wi-Fi connections to produce and share a mobile 911 caller’s location with emergency responders.
The feature is designed to make it easy, in cases of dire emergency, for responders including police, fire fighters and paramedics to locate the distressed caller using their iPhone’s approximate location information. While the technology is advanced and incredibly useful for this application, by today’s standards, it’s not considered the most accurate and efficient protocol, in and of itself.
New emergency response/911 standards outlined by the FCC stipulate that wireless carriers must be able to locate mobile 911 callers to a point within 50 meters of their location (at least 80 percent of the time) by 2021.
Apple, in keeping pace with these updated standards, on Monday morning announced a new partnership with emergency technology company RapidSOS, under the terms of which the iPhone-maker will utilize the firm’s Internet Protocol-based data pipeline to quickly, securely, and automatically share HELO location data with 911 centers.
“Communities rely on 911 centers in an emergency, and we believe they should have the best available technology at their disposal,” said Apple CEO, Tim Cook, regarding the announcement, adding that “When every moment counts, these tools will help first responders reach our customers when they most need assistance.”
In announcing RapidSOS, which will share iOS customer’s emergency location data by integrating with U.S.-based 911 centers’ existing software, CEO Michael Martin noted that “911 [operators] do extraordinary work managing millions of emergencies with little more than a voice connection. We are excited to work with Apple to provide first responders a new path for accurate, device-based caller location using transformative Next Generation 911 technology.”
The technology is baked into iOS 12, which is coming later on this year as a free update for iPhone devices including the iPhone 5s and newer. On iPhone, the feature is enabled by default in iOS 12, but can be turned off at the user’s discretion.
According to the firm, with the deployment of RapidSOS technology in iOS 12, location services are going to exceed the FCC’s new 2021 requirements — even in dense, urban environments, where GPS and location data can easily be skewed.
Initially after launch, the RapidSOS technology will not work with iPhone models associated with Apple’s LTE-capable Apple Watch Series 3, the company said — however non-LTE models of the Series 2 or 3 wearable will be compatible, pending a future update.
The industry response to Apple’s involvement in standardizing the current 911 infrastructure/response was largely positive, with multiple past FCC Chairmen and current 911 Administrators praising the company’s directive.
”We’re thrilled that Apple is giving 911 centers access to device-based location data via a thoroughly-tested, standards-based approach,” said Rob McMullen, the president of the National Emergency Number Association, the 911 Association. “This will accelerate the deployment of Next Generation 911 for everyone, saving lives and protecting property.”