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Code change to help emergency services locate mobile callers Daimhin Warner
25 November 2016

111

Pieter, a visitor from Belgium, witnessed a car accident in a remote area. The accident left a young woman unconscious and seriously injured. Pieter acted quickly and phoned the emergency line from his mobile phone to get help to the woman as soon as possible.

However, Pieter was in shock and was unfamiliar with his surroundings, so he was unable to tell the 111 call taker exactly where he was. Pieter was able to describe a few of the landmarks around him – a small bridge and an interesting grove of Kauri trees – but he couldn’t recall the road name or the nearest town. With only vague descriptions to help them, the Police and ambulance experienced significant delays locating the scene of the accident. As a result, they were delayed in reaching the young woman who remained in pain for some time.

This is an alarming story but one which has repeated a number of times in New Zealand, due to the unavailability of timely and accurate information about the location of mobile emergency callers.

New system

In response to these concerns, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, after researching various options, has developed a system suitable to NZ conditions that will generate location information on mobile callers and make this available to the emergency services on 111 calls. The Privacy Commissioner proposes to amend the Telecommunications Information Privacy Code to create a clear and lawful basis for this system.

The new system enabled by the amendment will involve the gathering and sharing of automated location information – either directly from a caller’s mobile phone if they have an enabled device, or in the form of a report generated by the network operator showing the nearest cell tower to the caller. Access to this information, in real time, will help the emergency services to locate a caller and thereby an incident.

In Pieter’s case, his mobile phone could have sent location information to the system which would have provided the 111 call taker with his coordinates. With this system in place, it would have mattered less that Pieter could not recall the road name or nearest town. The emergency services may have reached the accident sooner.

Submissions invited on amendment

The proposed code amendment recognises that this information sharing serves a very important public good. Systems similar to this operate in other countries, and there is a general consensus among telecommunications and privacy regulators overseas that this is beneficial to individuals and the public more generally. Public confidence that location information is properly protected is important, and so the amendment sets boundaries on the use and retention of the location information and requires the agencies involved to be as open and transparent as possible about the system.

We’re seeking the views of the wider public on this proposal, to make sure we’ve got the balance right. Click here to view the proposal and email your submission to submissions@privacy.org.nz by 23 December 2016. 

Image credit: In case of emergency sign.

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