Apple taps RapidSOS to help emergency responders pinpoint iOS users' locations

By Jonah Comstock
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Apple has announced a partnership with RapidSOS that will allow iPhones to more easily send detailed location data to first responders in the event of an emergency, the Cupertino tech giant announced yesterday. 

“Communities rely on 911 centers in an emergency, and we believe they should have the best available technology at their disposal,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a statement. “When every moment counts, these tools will help first responders reach our customers when they most need assistance.”

Since 2015, Apple has used a protocol called HELO (Hybridized Emergency Location) to estimate a caller's location based on GPS, cell tower data, and wifi access points. But RapidSOS has perfected the data pipeline to send that information securely and efficiently to many 911 call centers in a way that's compatible with their existing software.

Apple notes that this technology will put iPhone users ahead of an FCC requirement for carriers that doesn't kick in until 2021, namely that they be able to locate callers to within 50 meters at least 80 percent of the time. RapidSOS has three former FCC Chairs as investors — Tom Wheeler,  Julius Genachowski, and Dennis Patrick — and Wheeler and Patrick sit on the startup's board.

“Helping 911 services quickly and accurately assess caller location has been a major issue since my time at the FCC,” Patrick, who served from 1987 to 1989, said in a statement. “This advancement from Apple and RapidSOS will be transformative for emergency response in the United States.”

Crucially, Apple has pledged that the location data will only be used in emergency situations and won't be transmitted anywhere other than the responding 911 call center.

RapidSOS raised $16 million in April from Highland Capital, Microsoft Ventures, CSAA Insurance Group, and Forté Ventures, bringing its total funding to more than $30 million. The company's platform takes various devices and data sources — including health information from wearables, telematics from connected cars, smoke density from smart homes, location tracking from mobile devices — and links these directly to 911 responders during an emergency. The goal is to quickly provide responders with information unique to a specific emergency, leading to faster responses and better outcomes.

“911 telecommunicators do extraordinary work managing millions of emergencies with little more than a voice connection,” RapidSOS CEO Michael Martin said in a statement. “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.”