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Locating the Source of a Mobile 911 Call Made from a University Campus

Students encountering a dangerous situation are sufficiently savvy to reach for their mobile phones and call 911, but locating the source of a mobile 911 call made from a university campus is not easy and can cause delays in the arrival and preparedness of first responders.

Many people will have heard of “Enhanced 911” or “E911” - a system used for locating the source of a mobile 911 call. E911 uses GPS and TDOA (“Time Difference on Arrival”) to triangulate the location of a mobile 911 caller by sending signals to the mobile phone from at least two cellphone towers and calculating how long it takes for the signal to be returned to each tower.

Because E911 has to support mobile devices other than smartphones with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities, it works in a different way than commercial location-based smartphone apps (such as Google Maps). Whereas location-based applications use a combination of hybrid positioning systems and handset-based software to identify the location of a mobile phone, E911 relies on “line of sight”.

Line of sight is an unreliable method of accurately locating the source of a mobile 911 call if - for example - the caller is in a mountainous region or standing between skyscrapers. It is also unreliable if the caller is inside a building, as it may be able to calculate the “X” and “Y” coordinates of the caller, but not the “Z” coordinates - i.e. what floor of the building the caller is calling from.

Systems for Locating the Source of a Mobile 911 Call Made from a University Campus

In a university environment - in which multiple buildings are grouped closely together and triangulation signals can be distorted by Distributed Antenna Systems - accurately locating the source of a mobile 911 call made from a university campus is practically impossible using E911 technology. However, some universities have implemented systems that partially overcome the problem.

These systems work via apps that are downloaded onto students´ smartphones. They still use E911 technology to make 911 calls, but also use hybrid positioning systems and handset-based software to alert campus security teams to the location of the mobile phone. Students can also take advantage of geotagged texting to silently advise campus security of a dangerous situation.

These systems for locating the source of a mobile 911 call made from a university campus work inside buildings - even those with Distributed Antenna Systems - and regardless of what floor of the building a student is calling from. The advanced location-identifying software can save precious minutes in the arrival and preparedness of first responders - minutes that could potentially save the student´s life.

How Students Can Take Responsibility for Their Own Personal Safety

If a system for locating the source of a mobile 911 call made from a university campus has not been implemented, students can take responsibility for their own personal safety by creating a Personal Safety Profile at Smart911.com. This is a free service paid for by the county or city in which the university is located (please note not all jurisdictions are covered by the Smart911 service).

The Personal Safety Profile will prompt students to enter information about their health (blood group, medical conditions, allergies, etc.) and any other information that could be useful to first responders attending an emergency. It gives students the opportunity to upload maps of where they live and study, and make notes about access points and gate codes.

Smart 911 also allows for “911 call taker initiated 2-way texting”. This function enables 911 call takers to text students for further information about their location if the 911 call taker is unable to pinpoint it exactly from the details entered on the Personal Safety Profile. It is not an ideal solution for locating the source of a mobile 911 call made from a university campus but, until E911 technology develops to be as good as commercial location-based smartphone apps, it might just be a life-saving alternative.