Press Coverage

How high-accuracy wireless location technology keeps public safety ahead of the pack

High-accuracy location technology in law enforcement has proven its worth in applications that range from criminal surveillance to emergency response. But it now faces a challenge, as the customers it seeks to protect and the crime it seeks to prevent are themselves evolving to embrace next-generation technologies.

Fortunately, wireless location providers are partnering with law enforcement and public safety organizations in increasing numbers. These Silicon Valley-Main Street joint efforts are transforming the way public safety organizations conduct investigations, monitor criminals and respond to trouble. For their part, the technology providers understand that, in an era of declining budgets and strict cost parameters, delivering effective results that protect property and save lives will enable them to secure business among public safety organizations.

What Is High-Accuracy Wireless Location?

In order to understand how wireless location solutions are positively impacting law enforcement efforts, we must first understand the types of location technology in use today. The wireless geo-location industry emerged in the late 1990s, following the first FCC Enhanced 9-1-1 (E9-1-1) mandate, which implemented guidelines for effectively locating and tracking 9-1-1 callers using mobile phones. A variety of low-, medium- and high-accuracy performance location technologies emerged as a result of this new regulation.

However, only the high-accuracy solutions were deployed by wireless operators for meeting the E9-1-1 mandate. Location accuracy performance and reliability requirements vary by the type of application they serve. That in turn drives the selection of the appropriate location solution.

Nowadays, most of us are familiar with GPS (global positioning system). GPS solutions have several benefits, as well as a few limitations. GPS-based location systems require GPS receiver chipsets to be included in the caller's mobile device. Although the number of GPS-enabled devices is increasing due to widespread adoption of smartphones, the technology isn't ubiquitous globally. In addition, even if a phone is GPS-capable, many users shut off the GPS feature to avoid battery drain. GPS solutions take relatively longer to locate a target, resulting in possible life-threatening situations for emergency callers. GPS solutions work well in direct line-of-sight conditions with the satellites (open sky conditions), such as suburban and rural areas. But they can be challenged in dense urban settings (urban canyons) and especially in indoor environments from where most calls are originating these days.

The good news: There's another way.

RF Pattern Matching (RFPM) is a standards-based alternative location method. This network-based positioning method is based on radio link measurements collected from the network and/or the device. RFPM relies on predictions or models of the radio environment against which it performs an algorithmic comparison of the measurements to determine a best match estimation of the device location.

In short, RFPM uses the device's own radio signals to identify its location, eliminating any dependency on satellites or other network hardware. RFPM is able to locate all callers across any air interface and in any environment, eliminating limitations related to the phone type or network technology. This works extremely well in non-line-of-sight conditions, such as dense urban and indoor environments, as a complement to GPS location. It's also highly reliable for mission-critical public safety applications.

Law Enforcement Uses

The most widespread use of wireless location in public safety today is for E9-1-1. However, high-accuracy location, already part of the public safety infrastructure, could be better integrated to provide detailed intelligence for first responders and emergency callers.

For example, when texting 9-1-1, similar emergency calls in a given radius could be identified to alert authorities to larger emergencies, such as a terrorist attack or natural disaster. Transmitting a geo-tagged photo could help emergency responders locate someone in a crowded sports stadium or shopping mall. These and other options are being discussed as the U.S. continues to evolve its infrastructure to meet public safety demand.

The U.S. also provides a test case to disprove objections that high-accuracy location solutions require expensive up-front investment that doesn't justify the commensurate increase in accuracy. Besides the obvious response that it's impossible to put a price tag on technology that enables the saving of human lives, a simple diagram illustrates that an investment in high-accuracy can produce cost savings for public safety agencies.

Consider two location solutions?????Solution A is accurate to within 50 meters and Solution B is accurate to within 150 meters. In order to locate the same target, authorities using Solution B need to cover an area nine times larger than those using Solution A. For Solution B to work, authorities need to either deploy nine times the number of resources or take nine times as long to locate the target. Both outcomes result in increased expenses and take longer to locate an emergency caller?????time that could mean the difference between life and death.

For another example, consider the city featured in a recent 60 Minutes segment, Springfield, Mass. Springfield is a medium-size city of approximately 700,000 residents and the seat of Hampden County. Like many cities of this size, Springfield has been dealing with an uneven economy, municipal budget cutbacks and fluctuating crime rates. In the first decade of this century, Springfield was ranked as having the 18th highest crime rate in the U.S., but residents have seen the crime rate plummet more than 50% in the past few years due to innovative policing and the embrace of new technologies.

As an example, in 2008 the city's police department deployed a location-based application called ShotSpotter that detects the location of gunshots using acoustic measurements. This system detected more than 4,000 gunshots in the first two years it was deployed, leading to more than 25 arrests.

But Springfield, like many cities, could be doing more by augmenting its efforts with high-accuracy (within 50 meters) wireless location, which makes possible the use of target tracking, geo-fencing (a virtual security perimeter around a building such as a county courthouse), and other advanced surveillance measures. In turn, these capabilities enable police to identify patterns of criminal behavior, track potential criminals and selectively deploy resources to prevent attacks.

By monitoring the locations of criminals and suspects over a period of time, authorities will be able to create "heat maps" that identify areas in which patterns of criminal activity are located (similar to what the city is already doing to identify gunshots in the ShotSpotter example above). These patterns can then be referenced by police to assign priority for increased monitoring and to optimally deploy personnel and equipment in anticipation of unlawful activities. Smarter, more efficient, deployment will result in lower personnel costs and budget savings.

A Peek into the Future

Although the deployment of high-accuracy wireless location technology is greatly benefitting law enforcement organizations today, the industry is looking toward the future to anticipate new challenges and design solutions that incorporate state-of-the-art technologies to help public safety officers do their jobs.

One such development is the integration of wireless location technology with technologies already in use by police and other first responders. By using the full potential of these advanced technologies, providers can offer 360-degree situational awareness, improving safety and increasing intelligence gathering capabilities. Some examples follow.

Augmented reality: Imagine an officer approaching a suspect location. By using location technology interfacing with court and police records that have been geo-tagged, the officer can instantly access all outstanding warrants, arrest records of persons living there and other useful information to better assess the situation before entering the building.

Facial recognition: An officer can photograph a suspect in the field under surveillance and upload the photo to headquarters where it will be instantly analyzed. The suspect identification and related information (criminal record, arrest warrants, known associates) is then relayed back to the officer, providing a real-time snapshot of the suspect and better equipping the officer. Furthermore, by geo-tagging this information, the police can piece together movement patterns for the suspect, which may help in future surveillance and investigations.

License plate readers (LPR): An officer can scan license plates and check against a database to determine if a car is stolen, has been used in a crime or belongs to a crime suspect. The location application can also alert other officers in the area if backup is required and determine the most optimal routes to intercept the suspect vehicle.

Crime heatmaps: Location technology can be used to create crime "heatmaps" based on public safety statistics to identify concentrations of various types of crime (auto theft, burglary) and respond accordingly. The officer will be alerted when he or she has crossed a virtual geo-fence into such a hotspot so that the officer can prepare and respond accordingly. Similarly, headquarters can filter and analyze geo-tagged events, such as arrests and 9-1-1 calls to determine patterns and better allocate resources.


Clearly, the time for location-enabled solutions for law enforcement and other public safety efforts has arrived. Not only do these applications help protect the public and LEOs, they're also cost effective, often resulting in a smarter use of resources. Most importantly, high-accuracy wireless location technology gives public safety organizations an advantage over crime and criminals and opens new doors to more advanced applications in the future.