Will the FCC and Congress Stand Up for Women’s Safety? | Commentary

Posted September 29, 2014 at 12:59pm

Ray Rice is not the only reason that we, as a society, have far to go in stopping violence against women. People may argue the circumstances surrounding the Baltimore Ravens running back, and the video showing him knocking his fiancée out cold in an Atlantic City elevator, are exceptions to the common American experience. He’s a star, football is an inherently violent sport, the media is on a feeding frenzy, and money and reputations are at stake.

Yet we are confronted every day with quieter examples of the same problem. Consider an issue now before the Federal Communications Commission, in which the very survival of domestic-violence victims is at stake. The FCC is considering whether to require wireless phone carriers to ensure that when a woman is under attack and dials 911 on her wireless device, she can be accurately located by first responders.

You’d think this was a no-brainer. The phone companies have everything they need to develop the technology. Public safety is on the line. End of discussion. And yet the major wireless carriers — Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint — have been dragging their feet, for reasons they have not clearly spelled out, and it is far from assured that the FCC will do the right thing.

Everyone needs to do what they can, especially Congress. Leaders on Capitol Hill — especially those who care about the safety of women — must weigh in with the FCC to do the right thing.

Consider what happened to Michelle Miers, a mother of two young children from California, who called 911 from her cellphone after an attacker shot and stabbed her in her home. She was losing blood fast and was too weak to tell the dispatcher where she was. Every minute that went by was crucial. Yet it took the police more than 20 minutes to find her, by which time she was unconscious and died on the way to the hospital.

Wireless carriers currently share very limited location data with 911 operators. But in order to help in a situation like Miers’ accurate location information must be required on all cell calls to 911. And since domestic-violence calls form the single largest category of 911 dials, women like Miers are facing nothing short of a public safety crisis.

Shockingly, the FCC estimates that if carriers did invest in the technology to pinpoint wireless 911 callers, they could save around 10,000 lives a year, many of whom are women facing violence and abuse. That number is not a typo.

Of the 240 million 911 calls made by Americans each year, more than 70 percent come from wireless devices. That percentage is even higher for low-income women who generally lack land lines and have only their cellphones to fall back on in an emergency. Domestic violence is the No. 1 reason these and other women dial 911 in the first place.

Days before Miers was stabbed to death, she had already dodged two bullets fired by her ex-boyfriend. She was clearly in danger, yet she did not receive a vital component of the protection she needed.

It is critical that the FCC pass the rule as they proposed and apply maximum pressure on the wireless companies to introduce this life-saving technology as quickly as possible. Even two years is too long to wait. There is nothing we can do now for Miers. But, for the sake of tens of thousands of women like her, the FCC must take action and take it now. If members of Congress can lobby the FCC to make that a reality, they have a responsibility to help protect women and victims.

Katherine Spillar is executive editor of Ms. Magazine.