When Boone County, Mo., emergency dispatcher Chuck Mastalski answered the phone, it was clear the caller was in distress. Unable to breathe, the man could not confirm his location or describe the crisis.
Fortunately, an on-screen popup box told Mastalski who was calling, where he was located and his medical history. Based on that information, the dispatcher was able to send a response team to render aid — all without the caller saying a word.
That caller had registered in advance for Smart911, an emergency call enhancement service that allows citizens to voluntarily input a wealth of personal information, which becomes visible to emergency responders when a 911 call is placed. County officials say the system has been a win for them since it was first implemented in 2011, and now they are moving to incorporate a range of additional services from the company that produces Smart911, Rave Mobile Safety.
“The more information people can give us, the better we can respond,” said Joe Piper, deputy director of Boone County Joint Communications. “Maybe I have a tornado shelter under my house and if my house collapses, how will people know to find me? Or maybe I am on home oxygen, or I have mobility issues and I need help in an evacuation. As a citizen, this system lets me tell emergency responders all of that.”
The idea of enhancing 911 calls with personal data did not come out of the blue. In fact, the county had requests for such a service before implementing the smart-call technology.
“In the past, it wouldn’t be uncommon for citizens to contact us asking us to add information to our phone system,” Piper said. They might share information about pets, or about someone in the house with a disability. “The most common things we would get would be that their residence is hard to find, it’s in a rural area and the driveway isn’t marked. So they would call us with directions.”
All that information would be recorded manually, a time-consuming process. Too often, residents would move away without updating that information, leaving behind obsolete records that could impede emergency response.
For the 2,000 county residents enrolled in the program, Smart911 brings a high level of automation to the process of enhancing emergency call data.
Citizens visit a Web portal to enroll in the system, which presently serves 31 million individuals across 40 states and handles 10 percent of 911 calls nationally. Smart911 sends automatic reminders asking people to update their profiles every six months.
Users can enter a broad range of data including medical information, contact information for anyone associated with that address, and other personal details. One of the most helpful uses has been among those for whom English is not a first language. “Sometimes folks will call and they don’t speak English but they have already identified in their profile what language they do speak. That can make it quick for us to facilitate interpretation services over the phone,” said Operations Manager Stirling Williams. He oversees a staff of 33 emergency call-takers, of whom five to seven are on duty at any given time.
The system is open not just to individuals but also to businesses. “We have facilities owners who provide things like floor plans, emergency response plans, employee rosters,” said Todd Miller, vice president of public safety at Rave Mobile Safety. “Having that kind of actionable facility data available can be very valuable when a 911 call is placed.”
An average community with two or three dispatchers on duty can implement Smart911 for less than $10,000 a year, while statewide deployments such as those in Delaware or Arkansas can cost substantially more. It depends too on the range of Rave tools a municipality wants to implement, Miller said.
It is possible to measure return on investment, for example by looking at how much response times may improve when dispatchers have access to supplemental data. Miller said Rave’s text chat feature saved Ottawa County, Mich., $25,000 last year by improving responders' ability to re-initiate and verify abandoned 911 calls.
“You get reduced response times, you get reduced call-taking times, you get lives saved,” he said. A few recent examples help to illustrate the point:
- In Eaton County, Mich., a child called 911 because her mother was being beaten by a boyfriend. The child was too frightened to speak, but dispatchers were able to use Smart911’s text chat feature to glean the needed details.
- In Orange County, Va., dispatchers took a call about a woman being beaten. A weak cell signal dropped the call but the text chat function allowed dispatchers to get what they needed and dispatch help.
Boone County officials say that while they cannot quantify return on investment, they are sufficiently pleased with the system that they are expanding their use of related products.
This fall the county will implement Rave Alert, a system that allows residents to opt into emergency notifications via text, voice and other specific avenues. The local university is making the system available to its population of some 35,000 students, as well as faculty and staff.
The county also is launching Smart Prepare, a tool citizens can use to share vital information with emergency managers. Unlike Smart911 information, which only becomes visible when an emergency call is placed, this data goes into a searchable database that emergency teams can use for planning purposes. They can then allocate resources as needed, or plan for targeted alerts.
“There’s an advantage to us in having it all on one platform,” Piper said. “It gives the citizen a single point of entry where they can find all of those services.”