While iOS 11.3 added support for Advanced Mobile Location (AML), an automatic location-sharing feature used by some European emergency services, iOS 12 will include support for a similar U.S. emergency service called RapidSOS, Apple announced today. The feature will share iPhone location data with 911 first responders later this year, enabling quicker discovery of imperiled people and reduced response times.
Apple notes that 80 percent of 911 calls today come from mobile devices, but obtaining location information without spoken details from the caller can be a challenge. RapidSOS will automatically pass along iPhone location data using an industry-standard protocol that integrates with many 911 centers’ existing software.
“911 telecommunicators do extraordinary work managing millions of emergencies with little more than a voice connection,” said RapidSOS CEO Michael Martin. “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.”
When Apple added support for AML to iOS 11.3, it did so with the caveat that it only worked “in countries where AML is supported.” AML operates by automatically activating location services whenever an emergency call is made, then collecting and sharing the location with the emergency responder via text message before turning location services off. Because it relies on modern location technologies, AML was said to be considerably more accurate in pinpointing an emergency victim’s location than prior solutions and able to shave precious seconds or minutes off of response times. The RapidSOS solution will benefit from the same underlying location solution, which Apple calls HELO and says uses cell towers, GPS, and Wi-Fi hardware to estimate the user’s address.
Though there are obvious privacy implications to the feature, as it can share location information with police and other first responders, its ability to save lives is unquestioned. Responders can start a location-accurate dispatching process more quickly, coming to the aid of children who don’t know their current address, confused accident victims, and suicidal individuals. Notably, Apple says that user data provided by RapidSOS may solely be used for emergency purposes, and only the responding 911 center will have access to the user’s location during the emergency call.
Apple’s move to add AML support to iOS was sparked by an August 2017 open letter from the European Emergency Number Association (EENA), an organization representing over 1,300 emergency services representatives across 80 countries. The EENA noted that it had been working without success to get Apple to follow Google’s lead in supporting AML — Google adopted it for Android in June 2016, with all Gingerbread and later OS releases technically capable of using AML in supported countries.
But the list of countries was short. AML was available solely to users in Belgium, Lithuania, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, as well as parts of southern Austria. The EENA has estimated that if Apple and Google both supported AML, the European Union alone would save 7,500 lives and 95 billion euros in wasted emergency services over 10 years, though the actual numbers are obviously impossible to determine.
With RapidSOS support, Apple is apparently getting out ahead of a 2021 U.S. mandate whereby the FCC will require carriers to locate callers to within 50 meters at least 80 percent of the time. iOS 12 will be able to exceed that level in the U.S., as iOS 11.3 does with AML.