Every driver has likely experienced the mini-heart attack after looking in the rearview mirror and seeing a fire engine or ambulance blaring its siren mere feet behind the vehicle. Typically, the driver veers off to the shoulder as quickly as possible and waits until the emergency vehicle passes.
This problem can be exacerbated when cars go through intersections if other drivers are unable to hear or see the oncoming emergency vehicles. This is often where emergency vehicles can experience accidents causing a slowdown in response time and millions of dollars in repairs.
Cities have been looking into private-sector solutions to identify solutions to the problem. Grand Rapids, Mich., and Palo Alto, Calif., have working partnerships with HAAS Alert, a startup that is using mobile data to alert drivers of upcoming emergency vehicles in real time through V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) notifications. Along with sending push notifications to drivers and cyclists, HAAS (which stands for Heedful Audio Alert System) also offers a dashboard of safety statistics including live fleet management tools and response rate analytics.
“Cities pay tens of millions of dollars in emergency vehicle collision repairs and lawsuits,” said HAAS CEO and Co-Founder Cory Hohs. “Each collision where an injury occurs costs on average $1 million.”
Sitting in the heart of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto has been open to public-private partnerships, according to Deputy Fire Chief Catherine Capriles.
“We have issues of people pulling over or hearing sirens these days, because cars are so insulated,” said Capriles. “It’s hard to get people’s attention and makes it dangerous for us.”
Contrary to popular belief, the most dangerous aspect of a firefighter's job is not actually fighting a fire. Firefighters are “more likely to die in a motor vehicle-related incident than during the course of a firefighting operation,” according to a 2014 FEMA study. The same rings true for police officers. While gunshot attacks are more heavily covered on the nightly news, vehicle-related fatalities are one of the leading causes of death for law enforcement officers. Capriles hopes the HAAS Alert system will help decrease the number of injuries in emergency vehicle accidents.
While the number of residents who have downloaded the app to receive the alerts has been relatively low, the data analytics dashboard has proven useful for the department. By using the real-time fleet management tool, the department can determine how long it takes to get from station to site and calculate the best route. This, said Capriles, has been vital when taking into account the recent congestion crisis plaguing the region.
A crucial aspect of a successful partnership is communication. The relationship between the Grand Rapids Fire Department (GRFD) and HAAS has been collaborative and vital to the program's success.
One of the most important features for the GRFD has been for the technology to be non-labor intensive. Strategic Planning Officer Brad Brown explained that the city needed two things: for the program to be cost effective and require minimum input from fire department personnel.
“It was really a working through the program with them developing what specific process would work for us and for first responders,” said Brown. “Making it a seamless integration into our fire apparatus was crucial for the success of the partnership.” Capriles echoed the sentiment saying, “You want it working so well, you hardly even know it’s there.”
The department had already been using iPads in emergency vehicle dispatch, so adding the app was a relatively simple setup. The app is often left on in the background adding vehicle and response data to the dashboard for analytics. “It's a pretty hands-off tech,” said Hohs.
And that goes for both ends. While driving, people will receive a notification on their phone, coming through their Bluetooth system. The system “is not last-minute crash avoidance,” said Hohs, “this is pre-emptive, proactive alerting.”
Jumping into partnerships with startups requires caution and planning, said GRFD IT Technician Brian Blockâ. “It is scary taking that first step, but if you take that calculated risk and do some beta testing, that payoff could be huge.”
Testing this technology has yielded different results in Chicago. Urban density and compact surface streets became an issue early on in the testing of the product said Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford.
“Initially there were some issues with GPS tracking,” said Langford, adding that the app has, “good potential.”
Hohs has been refining the product to overcome issues common for GPS devices in urban canyons and doesn't view large cities as inhibiting the growth of the product.
The company is moving toward providing data-as-a-service rather than creating an app users would need to download in order to receive the notifications. The company is looking to integrate the notifications into pre-existing mobility applications like Google Maps, Apple Maps and HERE or connected car tech including Apple Car Play and Android Auto.