QA Locate provides several technologies that have the potential to significantly benefit those in need, the first responders who aid them, and other emergency services personnel worldwide.
The first question many 911 departments are now training operators to ask callers is: “Where is your emergency?”.
Having a simple, clear, direct answer to this question is both critically important and, too often, unachievable.
To fill this gap a complex assortment of sophisticated solutions have been developed and deployed. In the mobile phone space two well-known solutions are: AML (implemented by Google’s ELS for Android and Apple’s HELO for iOS) and Enhanced 911. These are good solutions and they help save lives every day.
Unfortunately, not every life that could be saved is. The technical sophistication these solutions leverage does not always exist within the telecommunications infrastructure that has been installed over the last century, especially in areas that are underserved, rural, or remote. Many 911 call centers, and more generally PSAPs around the globe, are simply unable to consistently receive automatically provided location information. In cases where an operator has to rely solely on the caller’s ability to accurately describe where the emergency is, both the response times and the success rates plummet.
The only truly ubiquitous method of communication on a telco network is the voice channel.
Global Wireless Communications Challenges
It should come as no surprise that the emergency services organizations in urban areas of developed countries, like the USA, are typically well-funded and well-equipped. Making an emergency call from a smartphone in one of these metro areas will virtually ensure that the location of the caller is automatically sent, received, and actionable.
However, a stark and harsh reality sets in as soon as we move our focus to emergency services organizations that operate in underserved, rural, or remote areas. Here a lack of funding, equipment, resources, and more move systems like AML from a certainty to a long-shot.
Looking globally the situation is much worse. Last generation telecommunications equipment ends up dumped on the global market, shipped abroad, and re-used to replace failed or failing equipment. Reliably interfacing with this hodgepodge of infrastructure can leave an emergency services organization forced to use a least-common-denominator: the voice-channel.
In fact, the humble and ubiquitous voice-channel is, by far, still the most reliable means of communication, even on modern telecommunications infrastructure. In the twelve month period between October, 2018, and October, 2019, families in Preston Hollow near downtown Dallas, Texas lost (on at least one major network) all wireless capability for more than 48 total hours. In each event voice services were restored first, followed later by high-speed data.
Having a voice-channel-optimized option for location communication is an overlooked necessity that will save lives the world over.
Communicating on a Voice Channel
The voice channel offers a number of different untapped opportunities for callers to communicate their location during an emergency. We at QA Locate think all of these methods should be used to provide as much security and redundancy as we can for those in need.
Anyone of a certain age will be aware that the internet sounded a bit different back in the day.
Prior to the rollout of broadband, most internet activity occurred by passing audible tones through phone lines.
We suggest that Emergency Call applications incorporate a similar technique to automatically encode and transmit a caller’s location as a quick screech. Dedicated software would be needed to decode the screech and QA Locate is actively collaborating with partners on this.
Most mobile devices have voice assistants and are able to communicate with a user by generating a synthesized voice. There are at least two possibilities for voice-channel communication supported by this technology:
- Emergency Call applications could speak the caller’s location as a geohash encoded using the NATO phonetic alphabet. The geohash provides a compact precise location, whereas the NATO phonetic alphabet ensures clear delivery over noisy phone lines.
- Emergency Call applications could speak the caller’s location as a GeohashPhrase™.
QA Locate has developed the GeohashPhrase™ as a way to encode a geohash as a short, memorable sentence. As compared to long numbers, like with Lat/Lon coordinates, or alphanumeric encodings, regular words and sentences are much more easily and reliably spoken and understood.
In emergency situations where a caller did not have their location automatically supplied via AML, the handset could provide a GeohashPhrase™ to the caller for them to speak.
The GeohashPhrase™ is compatible with all telecommunications infrastructure, can operate in any call center, and relies on nothing more sophisticated than a voice channel to carry location information. It is a least-common-denominator technology designed and optimized for humans.
Automating the Process
To ensure full redundancy of location transmission, especially through the voice channel, the process should be automated. Here is one potential automation strategy:
Integration and Implementation
The methods discussed have been chosen specifically because they require only the collaboration of smartphone OS manufacturers.
Other methods can be used, and should be investigated, but they have real and substantial costs. They would likely impact existing telco process and policy. They may impact existing telco infrastructure. They might require deep changes to existing call centers. Or require changes to law. Or a drawn-out regulatory approval. We could go on.
Instead, our proposal sidesteps these barriers so that these life-saving improvements can be available globally as soon as possible.
It is currently too difficult for a caller to answer the first question they hear: “Where is your emergency?”.
There are several extensions that could be made to the Emergency Call applications present by default in our smartphones that would greatly aid in helping callers answer that question.
To summarize, these are the changes QA Locate is proposing to smartphones’ Emergency Call applications:
- Offer a voice-channel-only fail-safe for emergency calls.
- Upon activating the fail-safe, have the phone inject a screech containing the location into the voice channel, providing a first level of redundancy should the caller have any difficulty speaking,
- Following the screech, have the phone inject an encoding of the location using the NATO-phonetic-alphabet,
- Present a GeohashPhrase to the caller to be read aloud,
- Offer to speak the phrase on behalf of the caller, and
- Enable the emergency operator to remotely trigger automatic voice-channel encoding of the caller’s location.
These extensions would provide multiple, redundant methods for the caller and the operator to communicate the location of caller. Further, they provide the caller with the security that no matter where they are, they will be able to easily, rapidly, and reliably communicate their location in even the most stressful situation.
Enabling an emergency operator to remotely trigger automatic voice-channel encoding of the caller’s location adds a much needed level of capability. In many situations the caller will either need to move, or be forced to move. Not having to rely on the caller to communicate their updated location saves valuable time.
Should the caller have difficulty speaking, or be unable to respond to queries intelligibly, a remote mechanism is even more valuable. As long as the phone line remains open, the operator would be able to trigger transmission of the caller’s location.
Why have so many redundant mechanisms for communicating location?
Quite simply, location is now the most important piece of data that the operator needs from the caller during an emergency and it needs to be acquired as quickly as possible. Without location aid cannot be effectively delivered. Each of the proposed methods addresses one or more potential failure scenarios: e.g. the caller is unable to speak, the line is noisy, the call center is using older AML-incompatible infrastructure, etc.
Is the GeohashPhrase™ ready for production use?
Not yet. To make the GeohashPhrase™ production ready will require the combined efforts of an entire community.
For example, the current word-dictionary, on which we base the phrases, is still under active development and is likely to undergo substantial revision. The words in use WILL CHANGE. The locations that phrases resolve to WILL CHANGE.
We welcome efforts to help improve the GeohashPhrase™ and in deploying it to more platforms.
Why not have the caller simply speak a Geohash (or Lat/Lon, Plus Code, etc.) to the operator?
Transcribing complex information, like a lat/lon coordinate, over the phone is often an exercise in frustration, as poor audio quality along with intermittent pauses and drops combine to prevent clear communication. In those situations, callers may revert to repeating themselves, and/or spelling out words one letter at a time, either using formal purpose-made systems like the NATO-phonetic-alphabet, or by doing it ad-hoc, say by using names.
An emergency is the wrong time to be teaching someone the NATO phonetic alphabet so they can read you a geohash or a lat/lon.
By using simple words as part of a grammatically correct sentence, the GeohashPhrase™ makes verbal relaying of the contained information quick, reliable, and pain-less. This saves valuable and critical time.
Once transcribed, the structure of the GeohashPhrase™ continues to provide benefits. Stress induces incidental errors, like digit transposition, word alteration (e.g. changing singular to plural), and word re-ordering. The GeohashPhrase™ is resilient in the face of these common errors, and resolves the altered phrase to the same location.
Why base the location encoding of the GeohashPhrase on the Geohash instead of Lat/Lon, Open Location Code, What3Words, etc?
The location encoding must be both compact as well as truly free, open, completely unencumbered, and with zero ties that might present any conflicts-of-interest. The solution that best fits these criteria is the Geohash. The GeohashPhrase simply encodes a geohash as a sentence.
Is the GeohashPhrase™ free and open source?
The GeohashPhrase™ is, and always will be, free to use.
Additionally, we intend to adopt a free and open source license for both the technology as well as our Alpha implementation: https://search.qalocate.com.
We are working through how to handle any related patents, copyrights, and trademarks.
Why should smartphones not automatically provide location via the voice channel?
Smartphones are already capable of automatically providing their location via the SMS and data channels. The operator and the caller should be able to decide themselves, dependent on the situation and it’s context, what is most important to communicate via the voice channel. Additionally, in life threatening situations we believe that the most critical thing we can do is establish first the human-to-human connection, before we prioritize this technology.
How would this system accommodate height (z-axis)?
The Geohash, and by extension the GeohashPhrase™, is limited to 2-dimensions. While a third dimension could be added to these encodings, the value/complexity trade-off is not worthwhile. Instead, the z-axis could be included as part of the automatic location transmission. This way the operator has the information, should it be necessary.
Is this system a replacement for AML or Enhanced 911?
No. We are proposing an augmentation of the existing systems to cover those situations where mobile phones are unable to automatically provide location, or where emergency operators are otherwise unable to automatically obtain the location of the caller.
The goal is the provide a reliable, resilient, and efficient fail-safe that can work anywhere in the world.
Why use custom voice-channel encoding/signaling and not DTMF?
DTMF is more than 60 years old and occupies a special place in existing telco infrastructure. Attempting to re-use DTMF in any novel way will only create issues. PSAP PBX (land-line trunking) call routing still relies heavily on DTMF.
Globally one will likely still find deployed some instance of nearly every piece of telecommunications equipment produced in the last 70 years. For extremely old equipment, or equipment that has special interfacing concerns, DTMF may be the only option for channel signaling. This means an alternative to DTMF must be used.
Fortunately, the basic technique behind DTMF can be re-used without issue thus allowing us to encode:
- geohash + timestamp + (optional) z-coordinate
- operator-to-caller command to force re-transmission of the caller’s location
QA Locate is working with domain experts to investigate and suggest an appropriate encoding.
How can this vision become reality?
Our vision requires only the collaboration of smartphone OS manufacturers. Existing telco process and policy would not be impacted, or require change. Existing telco infrastructure would not be impacted, or require change. Existing call centers could accommodate the proposed enhancements at their discretion. To our knowledge, none of our suggested 911 Extensions violate any existing rules and regulations.