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Feature Request: Automatically activate emergency features on making a 911 call

911 2-1

We reported recently on an Apple patent application for a ‘panic mode‘ on an iPhone, where using a specific finger on the Touch ID sensor could do anything from locking down the phone to calling 911 and starting audio and video recording.

There are pros & cons to the idea, of course, with one 911 operator saying that a similar Blackberry function has resulted in “thousands and thousands” of false emergency calls, each of which have to be treated as real calls for help until demonstrated otherwise.

But if we waited until someone manually dialled 911, it seems to me that there’s merit in some of the other ideas … 

For example, witnessing an accident or crime in progress can be a traumatic experience, and it’s not unusual for callers to be unable to provide an accurate location. Some provide only very vague locations – “somewhere on Main Street” – while others give the wrong location, each of which delays an emergency response.

If calling 911 automatically put a Speak Location button on the screen, you could press that button when asked for your location and have Siri tell the operator where you are, exactly as if you’d asked it ‘Where am I?’.

Interestingly, a note in AT&T’s Wi-Fi Calling service suggests that some 911 centers appear to have the capability to obtain your location electronically.


Similarly, audio and video evidence of a crime can greatly increase the likelihood of a successful prosecution. On ending a 911 call, the iPhone could ping and put a Start Video Recording button on the screen to prompt you to capture video. It would be sensible to put a prominent notice on that screen to record only if it doesn’t put you at risk.

Finally, in the case of a major incident, where it can be reassuring to let family and friends know that you’re safe, perhaps the iPhone could automatically identify those in the affected area and bring up a prompt to use a feature like Facebook’s Safety Check or pre-populate a text message with a ‘Just letting you know I’m ok’ message?

Do you think these features would be useful? Or have any other thoughts on 911-related functionality? Let us know in the comments.

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  1. Milorad Ivović - 7 years ago

    Calling emergency services triggers cell tower triangulation which is quite an accurate method of locating you. It’s that way in most developed countries. They also have a landline database issued by telcos which links a landline number with an address. They’ll ask you where you are, but in most cases they’re just double-checking that information.

    Interestingly, a note in AT&T’s Wi-Fi Calling service suggests that some 911 centers appear to have the capability to obtain your location electronically.

    Actually, this is something SIP-based VoIP providers also ask for. They require that you specify your address, because unlike landline numbers and cell triangulation, wifi or IP address location information is rarely accurate. Notably in the AT&T screenshot, they’re asking you to specify an address which is used when making calls on the new Wi-Fi service because when you use that service, they don’t have access to cell tower data, because your call is going over the internet, not through cell towers.

    • Then they should make the call go through the cellular network whenever possible for emergency calls.
      Also I don’t understand how they didn’t think about a standard to transmit accurate GPS location while on a Wi-Fi call, especially since VoLTE and the new Wi-Fi calling were designed to work together.

      • Milorad Ivović - 7 years ago

        Cell triangulation or caller ID for land lines are methods which don’t rely on your device having GPS reception. GPS is harder to lock on than cell towers are. The location information you get indoors is based on Assisted GPS which uses cell signal to help locate you. One of the major points of wi-fi calling is to help mitigate any cell reception issues you might have at work or at home. If you are a) indoors and therefore on wifi and b) have poor cell reception, chances are GPS is going to take forever to lock on, if it even locks on at all…

        Without the assisted part of A-GPS which relies on cell towers, your phone would take about as long to locate you accurately, as an old TomTom used to. Remember those? A lot can go wrong in that time.

        So they ask you to nominate an address, which is not subject to your device having a decent cell signal (or being in excellent working order, even). Nothing wrong with that.

    • srgmac - 7 years ago

      Yep, I believe all phones, even dumb phones, are required to have an Assisted GPS (AGPS) chip in them because of 911 location — at least in the United States, for the past 10 yrs or so maybe.

  2. Inaba-kun (@Inaba_kun) - 7 years ago

    Not sure calling 911 would do you much good in the UK Ben. You should try 999 instead. Surprised you don’t know that.

    • Ben Lovejoy - 7 years ago

      Actually, dialling 911 in the UK automatically directs the call to 999/112 – surprised you don’t know that …

      • Inaba-kun (@Inaba_kun) - 7 years ago

        Even if that’s true, and I’ve never heard that, why would you do it anyway?

        Seems illogical.

      • srgmac - 7 years ago

        @Inaba-kun — You would do that if you were an American in the UK needing assistance and did not know to dial 999.

    • flaviosuave - 7 years ago

      Do you have a diploma now, because you just got SCHOOLED!

    • Ben Lovejoy - 7 years ago

      It’s because visitors to the UK may not know the local emergency number, or may panic and dial their normal one anyway.

  3. o0smoothies0o - 7 years ago

    I’d say add emergency actions buttons on the emergency call screen. Tap on them and it details, simply, and graphically how to preform the Heimlich Maneuver, CPR, on infants or adults, and also how to tourniquet a wound, and to elevate an extremity in the event of heavy bleeding to prevent blood loss. And these can be viewed and tapping on one puts the call on speakerphone so you can continue talking to emergency services while you read.

  4. Matt Smith - 7 years ago

    been reading /r/apple posts, eh?

  5. Don Wise (@doncwise) - 7 years ago

    Being the Exec. Administrator for a 9-1-1 center for 13 fire departments in Los Angeles County I can state unequivocally that dialing 9-1-1 with a wired device (landline), cellular device or “smartphone” or other type of IP-enabled VoIP device, each of them bring their challenges when dialing 9-1-1 as to what a Public-Safety Answering Point (PSAP) receives or does not receive in terms of location data or for that matter the routing of the 9-1-1 call to the correct PSAP upon dialing 9-1-1.

    If dialing 9-1-1 from a landline or home/business phone (not a VoIP phone), we receive ALI/ANI data (location and phone number information) based on the billing address from the Telephone Company (TelCo). Generally, the data is valid, however in Los Angeles County alone, there are upwards of 40,000 changes daily to the Master Street Address Guide (MSAG) and to ALI/ANI databases due to people moving, new businesses starting up, etc. So, regardless of the data being provided automatically, a human being still needs to validate the data (their phone number and location) when someone calls 9-1-1 each and every time.

    If dialing 9-1-1 from a VoIP phone (for personal/home use), there’s a requirement that the user “pre-registers” their location/address upon implementation. The problem here is that a user can move to a new residence, such as a different city/county and sometimes state, and if they do not re-register their new location, upon dialing 9-1-1 they will be routed to the PSAP that handled 9-1-1 calls for their previous address. We’ve had those types of instances, often, where we receive a 9-1-1 call in California from someone who now lives on the Eastern seaboard. We do receive the registered ALI/ANI information in these cases, along with the guidance to always verify the callers location.

    If dialing 9-1-1 from a VoIP phone (for business use), this service is generally NOT offered by the TelCo’s for the simple reason that a VoIP (SIP) phone can be too easily moved (and are too often moved) from one location to another (different floor within the same building, different building within the same campus, etc.) and could potentially cause responders to go to the wrong location. As a result, business users of VoIP phones today, generally, have to dial a local 10-digit emergency number to get the correct public-safety agency.

    If dialing 9-1-1 from a cellular phone, Mr. Ivovic, is mostly correct. However, there are some issues with today’s cellular technology. If using a phone that is only Phase I compliant (i.e. an older style flip-phone from 10 years ago), the 9-1-1 center will only receive the closest cell tower address. If using a phone that is more modern and they are Phase II compliant, the 9-1-1 center will generally receive some latitude/longitude information with a percent/degree of confidence of the triangulation of that data at the 9-1-1 center as part of the ALI/ANI data information. If the user is calling from a mountain trail or high-rise office, the call is more likely to be triangulated to a location farther away due to (radio propagation) cellular technology connecting at a farther distance and missing or bypassing those towers closest to the caller due to their angle of approach. It is the very nature of the cellular signal which causes this to occur.

    There are also many instances where calls are handed off to cell towers farther away, because the cell site is either overloaded with traffic to begin with and/or out of service; and, if you’re in a borderline area where the county or city line is immediately adjacent to your location, your call could end up in another jurisdiction altogether, causing the need for additional transfers, repeating of information, etc. GPS location is not provided because currently it takes too long to obtain it from the phone when accessing 9-1-1; we expect the TelCos will be providing us with better GPS data in the future as technology improves. There may be some trade-off such as a 5 second delay before the caller can access the 9-1-1 system – but this would be better than the GPS data we receive today which is generally only good for up to 300 meters. So, think for a moment. You’re not able to speak, because you’re having an asthma attack and your alone and you’re on the 3rd floor of a building/residence. Could we find you? Unlikely. And no, we don’t have altitude data today, but we expect it in the future. So if you’re calling from the 5th floor of a 19-floor building, you’d still need to identify that information to the 9-1-1 center when asked about your location.

    Texting to 9-1-1. It’s coming to Los Angeles County and California soon. In some parts of the U.S. it’s already implemented fully and/or in proof-of-concept trials. The 9-1-1 industry does not yet fully understand all of the technical/operational impacts of this approach when accessing the 9-1-1 system or what the concerns will be down the road:

    * Will we need more call-takers to handle texting to 9-1-1 which takes longer to ask certain questions/obtain answers and enter the call for service?
    * Can we transfer a text caller from one PSAP to another?
    * Can we translate a text caller or transfer the text session to a language interpreter service, as we do today with voice calls?
    * Does (based on the type of 9-1-1 equipment/software in use at each PSAP) the text session allow for multiple text sessions or just one?

    So the message here is “call if you can/text if you can’t”.

    These are just some of the technical challenges that we face each/every day in each and every PSAP. Is it getting better? Yes. But by no means is the system perfect and by no means is it anywhere close to what one would see in the movies/television. So, yes, we would welcome ideas such as this where we can “ping” back a cellular phone and get better GPS data or for that matter “ping” a VoIP phone and obtain valid data and route the caller correctly to the closest PSAP the first time based on that data. Operationally our additional challenge is that item noted in the story. Our callers generally do not know where they are and they don’t know their cell phone number. Any technology that supports faster and better/reliable information to get our responders out the door quicker is welcomed. MicroCells should be helping, but we’re still unsure of the data as some of it arrives as Phase I data. WiFi calling should help, but we don’t have enough experience or data yet to quantify.

    Lastly, we take a very cautious approach to systemic 9-1-1 changes in order to better understand the technical/operational impacts of any new technology before it’s implemented. I see a lot of “9-1-1” apps on the market, some do very specific things for very specific areas, requiring some type of specific software at the PSAP. Meaning what works in one area with that “app” may not work in another area. Or, it leads the user to believe that they’re accessing the 9-1-1 system when in fact they’re accessing another call-center which is not 9-1-1 but merely a “relay service”, which then calls the PSAP on a 10-digit line and verbally relays information – not good, not appropriate. So, think before you buy…

    Apologies for the length of this, but I hope this helps everyone understand the 9-1-1 system a little bit better. I can’t speak for the countries outside of the U.S. but perhaps they can chime in to offer up their experience and identify their needs.

  6. uniszuurmond - 7 years ago

    Third world feature request: Please can we get a 911 emergency centre to start with?

  7. vpndev - 7 years ago

    An iPhone knows your location so that should be included somewhere as part of a 911 call. It could be spoken perhaps or sent using modem-like tones (remember those). Not a street address – instead it would be the lat/long coordinates just like you see of you send someone a URL of a map point. Using this would require an update to the 911 systems but communities could make those at their own pace. It has to be in phones first. Apple could discuss with Google to get this into Android as well.

    A second point is trying to contact “911” if you’re traveling internationally. The number for emergency services varies in every country. I’ve seen “000”, “111” and “999”. Your iPhone knows what country you are in based upon the ID of the carrier you’re connected to, even when you’re roaming. So it should be possible to have “911” actually dial the appropriate number for the region where you are. Possibly this happens already (for obvious reasons I don’t want to make test calls) but Apple has never made mention of it so I assume that it doesn’t.


Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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