Digital Communities

Free Cellphone App Gives Location, Medical History to 911 Dispatch in St. Louis Area

The free app will help give St. Louis dispatchers more accurate locations and information when someone calls 911.

by Rachel Rice, St. Louis Post-Dispatch / August 9, 2018

(TNS) — Imagine calling 911 and the dispatcher who answers immediately seeing your location on a map, your photo, your pertinent medical information and a list of your emergency contacts.

A St. Louis company called SirenGPS has created a mobile phone app that provides all this information in hopes that it will help enhance the efforts of emergency responders, and at least one local city and one local EMS and fire district are giving it a try.

SirenGPS was founded by Paul Rauner, who says he saw a need for the app when he was doing consulting work for hospitals and companies that had issues with communications during emergencies. Since the company’s founding in 2012, communities in Texas, Iowa, Missouri and Georgia have started using its tools.

One of those communities is Rock Hill, Mo., where residents are being encouraged to use the app.

If someone dials 911 from the app in Rock Hill, information they have supplied will appear on a dispatcher’s computer screen before the dispatch center's phone even rings.

The app also has a feature that allows users to type messages to dispatchers, for situations when speaking is difficult or dangerous.

“What we have heard from our dispatchers is that in an emergency it can be difficult to get an accurate address for somebody,” City Manager Jennifer Yackley said. “What it also does is, if residents choose, they can add additional information in there, (such as) if they have an illness or they're diabetic, or their child has an illness. If they put that information, that dispatcher will also have that information, and they can be providing that to EMS as they are arriving on scene.”

SirenGPS also can be used by schools and campuses to share information with first responders more rapidly in major emergencies, Rauner said.

“The technology that first responders use to communicate is based on local emergency response, and for typical day-to-day emergencies it works really well,” Rauner said. “Unfortunately, some emergencies are regional. The same tools that work for managing local resources don’t translate easily when the job changes from dispatching an ambulance on a 911 call to coordinating all of the emergency medical resources across a region in a disaster. Technology has advanced so dramatically in every other aspect of our lives that it may be hard to believe that the first responder communication tools available in a disaster look a lot like they did 40 years ago.”

For East Central Dispatch Center operations manager Kurt Ploch, who has worked as an emergency dispatcher for nearly 30 years, locating a caller in need of assistance can be the most stressful part of the job. The dispatch center takes 911 calls for eight different municipalities, including Rock Hill.

Most 911 calls come in from cellphones these days, but hills or tall buildings can throw off efforts to triangulate the caller's location. That further complicates efforts to get help to callers who are often panicked or disoriented.

“As a dispatcher … my biggest fear is not knowing where I’m at,” Ploch said. “I’m forever looking at exits and mile markers, because I know the frustration of needing to get someone help and not knowing where they are.”

The West County EMS and Fire Protection District has used SirenGPS for its capability to send announcements to residents, but just recently began using the app for its GPS abilities during emergency calls.

In addition, residents can receive notifications for things like severe weather, water main breaks or car accidents that interrupt traffic.

“It’s another tool to use and it’s kind of a no-brainer,” West County Fire Chief Jeff Sadtler said. “Hopefully people understand it and they start using it as time passes.”

As long as a person has the app downloaded onto their phone, they don’t necessarily have to live in a specific community to get notifications of emergencies. If a SirenGPS user is within the geofenced limits of the West County service area, for example, they could get a warning about flooding on a roadway.

West County pays $1,500 annually for SirenGPS’ announcement services, but West County and Rock Hill pay nothing for the enhancements to individual 911 calls, including all of the information that appears on a dispatcher’s computer screen.

While SirenGPS is a big step forward for local 911 operations, local dispatchers are also waiting for Next Generation 911 to be installed at all 21 dispatch centers throughout St. Louis County.

That initiative aims to move calls from “legacy analog circuit topography to an IP-based circuit topography which provides for more and faster emergency data exchange … (and) a focus on interaction with wireless devices,” according to Mike Clouse, director of the Emergency Communications Division with the county. The system is being installed but the county doesn’t have a timeline for completion.

Both West County and Rock Hill said they’d consider continuing to use SirenGPS even after Next Generation 911 is installed, because of its other features.

“Location is everything,” Ploch said. “Having the location right away is almost miraculous, and having a bit about their medical background — if someone is allergic to latex or something we might give them, we don’t want to make them sicker … this can bring a call that is typically five minutes down to seconds. In this business, seconds save lives.”

©2018 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.