The majority of emergency calls received by police departments and security offices on college campuses today come in via cellphone -- as many as 95 percent, said Josh Sookman, CEO of mobile emergency infrastructure provider Guardly. For those without mobile phones, however, there are bound to be gaps, despite a well coordinated system of emergency call boxes and physical help points. This can potentially leave students vulnerable in times of crisis.
"Blue light phones can't be everywhere," Sookman explained to Government Technology. "Our technology is actually able to deliver on a lot of the promise of existing infrastructure, which is to know the real-time location of where they are, as well as provide a way of immediate communication."
Users of the Guardly smartphone app create a brief profile that includes physical characteristics and medical information. Those details are available to emergency responders when they activate the app, allowing a more personalized response. Extreme allergy sufferers experiencing anaphylactic shock, for example, can be met with informed, properly equipped medical personnel. Law enforcement responding to a sexual harassment case access the Guardly subscriber's incident history, which can contain information critical to the timeliest, most effective response.
"We actually provide a lot of information that typically wouldn't be available," Sookman explained. "In the first five seconds, we let you know who it is, where they are and the nature of the emergency. And that's really powerful to dispatchers who have to make really important real-time decisions."
Louis Toromoreno manages campus security at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), situated within the downtown entertainment district in Toronto, Ontario. A campus of approximately 6,000 students, Toromoreno describes the student body as 85 percent female. Bustling downtown streets featuring popular nightlife destinations like clubs, bars, theaters and restaurants divide the buildings that make up the university.
Campus hours at OCAD stretch as late as 2:30 a.m. during certain times of the year, creating a challenging environment for security personnel. Following an increase in student reports of harassment from patrons of local businesses a few years ago, the university installed a Code Blue phone in centrally located Butterfield Park. But officials soon realized that the phone, described as a "giant panic button," wouldn't fully address the problem.
"We quickly started to realize that this one phone in the park isn't probably the best option for us," Toromoreno said, adding that he began to investigate other solutions. "How can we reach out to people and give them something that will help them feel safe in the situation of an emergency, on and off our campus?"
Following the recommendation of a colleague, Toromoreno contacted Guardly. OCAD conducted extensive on-campus testing of the mobile technology, and officially launched the app, free to students, in September 2012. Since then, Toromoreno said, they have aggressively marketed the app to first-year students, and are currently conducting department-level training sessions for students and staff. As of Jan. 1, 2013, the app had 447 users.
There are four ways that the app reaches appropriate security personnel when accessed in an emergency situation: it generates a phone call and an email, as well as an online dashboard featuring both visual and auditory alerts.
The app, while bringing benefits for all students, offers particularly valuable emergency help to students with accessibility issues who may not be able to physically access emergency phones or communicate their needs as easily.
According to Sookman, the app is also generating interest from cities and transit systems. The company also targets lone workers, like realtors and home health-care workers, who often meet strangers and share close quarters in remote locations. The Guardly app is available for iPhone and Android devices, as well as BlackBerrys and Windows phones.
"For our campus, this isn't the only tool we are going to use, and it never will be," Toromoreno said. "But we need to make sure that we’re looking at options on how we can put people that are in an emergency into access with campus security or campus police as quickly as possible. And I don’t think in this day and age, that we should rely on something that is completely hardwired anymore."
OCAD University photo courtesy of Urban Space Gallery.
Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.