When he speaks of that Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014, Dan Hoffman’s memory is a blur. Details come back in hazy pieces. His first recollections flash back to a headache, a throbbing pain that drove him into an afternoon nap. Next he recalls the sensations of heat, waking to a baking swelter. Next the glow of flames, a black canopy of smoke above, coughs shaking his lungs, the fire alarm shrieking, attempting to stand, to breathe, to reach for his cellphone and dial 911.
“My instinct was to get out,” Hoffman said.
He stumbled from the bedroom, to the bathroom, to the living room of his family’s home in Traverse City, Mich. The voice of a dispatcher must have spoken to him through his cellphone. He doesn’t recall it though. He only remembers listening to his own voice. He said the word “help” twice. It was the last thing he heard before collapsing, falling unconscious as his house continued to burn.
Randy Rittenhouse, fire chief for the Peninsula Township Fire Department, remembers that day and how, like most emergency situations, it highlighted the impact of time. A home fire can blaze out of control in about 30 seconds and the more treacherous wildfires can charge up to speeds of 14 miles per hour — brush, trees, structures, animal life, essentially all consumed in its wake.
Yet, smoke is the real killer. According to WebMD, 70 percent of fire deaths are caused by smoke inhalation, an activity leading to asphyxiation. Against the smoke the eyes go red, breath skips short, skin pales and the mind is sent into a confusion until unconsciousness takes over. The chances of survival can amount to minutes.
“[Hoffman] needed time, and time is what he didn’t have,” Rittenhouse said.
As one of the first to be dispatched, Rittenhouse said the call came in at 3:53 p.m., and by tracing Hoffman's mobile phone, the existing data placed him somewhere in the middle of West Grand Traverse Bay — an inlet stemming from Lake Michigan. The locale was an obvious miscalculation.
But Rittenhouse had another tool to use in his search for Hoffman. Grand Traverse County had deployed a relatively recent technology called Smart911, a platform that links phone numbers with resident contact and medical information. Using this voluntary user-generated data, dispatchers and Rittenhouse were able to locate Hoffman’s house within the area of the traced call.
Rittenhouse left immediately by ambulance with an initial assessment, based on Hoffman’s Smart911 medical data, that the emergency was related to an allergic reaction. This notion was quickly dismissed when Rittenhouse arrived with a fellow first-responder and saw a column of smoke rising from the house.
“That was when I notified central dispatch and told them it was a confirmed structure fire,” Rittenhouse said. “It actually had quite a bit of smoke coming out.”
With the clock ticking, and no fire gear in the ambulance, Rittenhouse said they had to enter without protective gear or a breathing apparatus. Visibility was low. Smoke banked itself down to the floor. Despite the fire and fumes, Rittenhouse located Hoffman in the living room.
“He was already face down and unresponsive inside the house … in another 11 minutes, it wouldn’t have been as good an outcome as it was,” Rittenhouse said, and credited Smart911’s data for enabling the quick life-saving response.
The next scenes that come back to Hoffman’s mind are punctuated between consciousness, waking and sleeping.
“I remember waking up a little bit when I was in the ambulance heading to the local hospital, and in my mind, it was just a split moment remembering that ambulance ride,” Hoffman said. “But I remember waking back up at the hospital, listening to a doctor say we’re going to put you to sleep and put something down your throat to help you breathe.”
When he woke again he was two-and-a-half hours away in a completely different city, lying in a completely different hospital. His wife and two daughters, age 6 and 8, learned of his condition only after Hoffman was absent picking up his children from school. On arrival to their home, Hoffman said firefighters and other first responders told his family he’d been taken by ambulance and braced them for the worst — chances for survival are slim in such a scenario.
“When I finally came to in Grand Rapids at Spectrum Health Hospital, it was emotional because there was no reason I should be there,” Hoffman said. “Without Smart911 … I would be dead."
Accuracy of a traced call depends on variables. A landline phone is the most precise since it's tied to a specific location. Voice over Internet protocol phones, or VoIP, default to the last registered user address — correct or otherwise. And mobile phones, which generate more than 70 percent of 911 calls, typically locate phone users within the length of a football field and about 60 percent of the time. Worst-case scenario is an area of up to 1,000 meters.
Those statistics reflect the accuracy and effectiveness of most traced calls, according to Todd Piett, the chief product officer for Smart911, and it is the reason parent company Rave Mobile Safety decided to develop the product.
“There’s all sorts of variations of data that a 911 system can get based on the device you’re calling from and none of it looks like you see on TV where they look down from a satellite into your home or know exactly where the call came from,” Piett said.
These complications have resulted in fatal miscommunications where emergency crews, through no fault of their own, are unable to locate victims. Smart911, deployed in hundreds of localities across Michigan and nationally, answers this problem with a crowdsourced repository of citizen data. Residents only have to create a profile that includes medical information, contact details, best emergency contacts and identifiable photos. Smart911 delivers this additional information once a 911 call arrives at a supported dispatch center. The cost for Smart911 is based on the service area's population.
Besides Smart911, the market for emergency health data services includes Safetown.org, which was developed by InterAct, and is used by a number of jurisdictions, including Indianapolis. Both services rely on customers voluntarily providing their health profile information. Individuals have to register with the specific service in order to benefit from it
“In reality what we have is a unique way for us to pipe data into a 911 center,” Piett said, and stressed all information is kept secure, private and shared only with officials when calls are made. Since Smart911 launched in 2010 it has been used in situations involving attempted rape, diabetic attacks, heart attacks and more.
Technology aside, however, Rittenhouse reflected on his appreciation for the results.
“It’s normal for the victims that we’re usually pulling out of the houses to be deceased. Vary rarely do we get this chance, Rittenhouse said. “So it was an honor to actually shake [Hoffman’s] hand, to see him hug his daughter, and be able to tell his kids that he loves them ... if it weren’t for Smart911 he wouldn’t have had an opportunity to do that.”
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.