A mature smartphone platform is loaded with apps, distracting us with texts, emails, YouTube, favorite TV shows streaming, tweeted news of the day, so much so that many millennials appeared glued to the screen no matter where they are. To some, they seem disconnected to the real world. To passerby, not glued to smartphones, they seem annoying, bad mannered or just plain dangerous when they walk into street traffic. No matter. We accept that is the way of the modern world because we see it so often, a riveting intoxication sprung from a combination of gaming, news and entertainment.
So, how do 911/112 public safety agencies participate and have a presence in the competitive app field for capturing interest…why would they? Why don’t they?
In the US, the big Public Safety Organizations are worried at the direction of apps. Apps live in a competitive world of download numbers and 9-1-1 wants a ubiquitous app that is the app version of 911; free, always on, reaches the right PSAP, uses phone network voice and data and doesn’t use the internet.
So where are we and where are the apps and if they aren’t there, what does it take to get them invented, used widely and “ubiquitous”?
The National Association of State 911 Administrators (NASNA) filed their concerns about 911 apps with the FCC in December 2016:
The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International, Inc. (APCO) also filed comments to the FCC:
The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) also weighed in:
The bottom line? They don’t like the apps that are out there, view their workaround architecture as deceptive and express their support to “work with app developers”.
Does a well-meaning app developer slog through the FCC/NASNA/APCO/NENA concerns and “requirements” when they want to provide a positive tool for callers who need law, fire and paramedics to respond better? No! Apps are speculative ventures and their success is based on a need in the market resulting in large numbers of downloads and few complaints. People like it and tell friends. It goes viral. If developing a truly useful 9-1-1 app has to operate within a secure, complex platform, accessible to the whole US and free, and uses the existing legacy network for 9-1-1 through the phone lines and doesn’t have the dispatcher use the internet to open the door to vital information that is needed to keep victims and first responders safer, yes we have a problem. The NASNA complaint to the FCC epitomizes the well-meant roadblocks to having a “nationally approved” app.
Callers with existing apps on their phone and many of the “unapproved” public safety apps now have a rich selection of tools to provide valuable information to keep victims and first responders safer. “I have a video of the crime and pictures of the guy and the car he drove, with all his movements tagged, geo-stamped and the time anything happened.” Instead the dispatcher says, “Confirm the location of the emergency, and TELL ME all your other information.” “I can’t send these video recordings?” “No, tell me what is on them.”
9-1-1 dispatchers are faced with a pressing challenge to provide a full set of information that is relevant to the call: gather the information you can and record it within the capacity and limitations of your CAD; you have to use internet to get the rest of the valuable information, the videos, the medical metadata, the audio files. You want to pass it all to your first responders. You know they can now have visual data for assessing visual situations. You know they have smartphones and tablets and can get it to them.
Or do you uneasily abandon the information because the 9-1-1 system and your CAD can’t deal with it? You will maintain your job security as a dispatcher, but have this gnawing feeling that you are held back from fully doing your job; to save lives and keep your first responders safe.
I am sick of this foot-dragging over preserving simple systems that worked once using one pipeline, the phone call, and are stonewalling the use of data, videos, attached files, texting, twittering, Facebook that fails to honor one overriding philosophy for emergency dispatch centers; gain as much information you can and pass it along as quickly as you can to first responders to do what’s best and stay safer. It is unconscionable to deny information that could be the critical for event safety because the legacy 9-1-1 system can’t handle it. Next Generation 9-1-1 can solve that. It promises a robust IP pipeline that can handle all of that; but when? Why is it taking so long? Are we left to wait for a large government approved company or the government itself to get into the app business and build this ubiquitous wonder app that covers the whole of the nation and have it free?
Not likely and probably not soon. So, we look elsewhere…
A rather sizable part of Italy uses a government approved app developed by a CAD manufacturer that deals with dispatchers, knows public safety needs, but also knows what technology if capable of and improves its service delivery. It is “112 WhereAreU” by AREU, the Regional Emergency Company. They run the 1-1-2 system, so they invented and sanctioned the app. They are, “The Official European Emergency Number 112 App.” There are 600,000 downloads since being released in 2014 in covering 17 million residents. It uses better location accuracy that the phone companies, it’s free, it has “silent call” mode if it is too dangerous to talk or you can’t speak: simple icons if you can’t speak to transfer specifically to law, fire or medical.
What the US is balking at doing, Italian public safety is already doing with having a sanctioned, solid app that does NOTHING to slow down a call, but enhances it, especially in location pin-pointing. So, this may be the model in the US; regions and states sanction apps and fold them in. AREU and 112 have created the sensible pathway. Other PSAPs, state administrators, NENA, APCO and NASNA should make a trip to Italy and see how this really works and works well.
Smartphone users SEEM distracted, but they are CONNECTED. Give them “112 WhereAreU” and know their attentions can not only be on their personal entertainment, but also be on the welfare of those around them, to care for their immediate community, acting quickly with the right tool to help others in needs. That is a connection with purpose to which all those smartphone “players” can now meet a higher social purpose. It is where smartphone use is best evolving: activism.
Curtis Darnell brings his lengthy public safety experience to the Beta 80 International team. He worked for 28 years at Santa Clara County Communications in California before retiring in 2010. He rose through the ranks of being a law, fire and medical dispatcher, eventually becoming the Chief of the agency and overseeing four managers, six supervisors and 73 line dispatchers. He is an active member of NENA, APCO and the NG911 Institute.