University of Maryland students, faculty and staff were given access this week to a free Android smartphone app that gives them a direct and instantaneous line of communication to campus police and dispatch.

With the M-Urgency app, smartphone users on the College Park campus have the ability to broadcast real-time audio and video to emergency dispatchers with the push of a button. Police and fire can also find the user’s approximate location by triangulating off of the phone’s built-in GPS and cell towers.

The University of Maryland announcement called the app the first of its kind in the world.

The Maryland Information and Network Dynamics (MIND) Lab and its director, computer science professor Ashok Agrawala, developed the app in collaboration with the university’s Department of Public Safety. Agrawala said the app is designed to be used anywhere and by any city. The professor said he already has received inquiries about the app from other universities.

Beta testing on the app, which was called V911 at the time, began several months ago with a dozen students, and has expanded to 100 students. The phased rollout began this week to selected users. Although available now only on the Android mobile operating system, an iPhone version is planned in addition to other platforms.

The smartphone app sends audio and video to dispatch via the university’s wireless network. Dispatchers, in turn, can send the real-time data to responders in their cars or in the field.

“When they reach the incident scene, what’s going on at the incident scene is monitored and is visible to the PSAP [public safety answering point] operator or the monitoring station,” Agrawala told Emergency Management, a sister publication of Government Technology, in an interview earlier this year. “At that point, these are extra eyes that can alert the officers for responding or whichever way they want to use that.” 

The M-Urgency app can also be used as a “virtual police escort service,” a local radio station reported last month. Campus police could, for example, monitor a student’s smartphone video feed upon request as the person walked across campus at night.

Officials were careful to note that the app is “opt-in only,” meaning that the app is free to download and is not required.

According to the university, Agrawala’s team is planning to add more features to the app, such as a  more precise location of a user’s location — to within 10 feet — that take into account what floor a person was on. The pinpointing of this “vertical” location would be achieved based on the identification of Wi-Fi routers on campus.

Agrawala’s researchers have been working for several years on informational campus tools, including a downloadable software package for mobile devices called MyeVyu for campus alerts.