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New App Calls 911 and Notifies Family in Two Taps

Mobile app developer Minh Tran launches an application to simultaneously call 911 and notify family members with GPS coordinates via SMS.

If Minh Tran was asked about the impetus behind his recent 911 emergency app, 2013 could be reason enough. The year brought his family a run in with two near-fatal heart attacks, one suffered by an uncle and the other by an aunt.

The two incidents prompted Tran, an independent mobile app developer based in Virginia, to launch an app in January that calls 911 while simultaneously notifying family members through text messages that include Google Maps GPS coordinates. The mobile app, 911 Help SMS, is aimed to be a free and simple solution to emergency situations and possibly lifesaving with its simple quick dial button.

“Sometimes you have family members who are nearby and if it’s a 911 situation you’ll definitely want your family members to know,” Tran said.

In the case of his aunt and uncle, who both live in Pennsylvania, Tran said they were fortunate to survive the heart attacks — though circumstances could have been different. Time to relay information to 911 dispatchers is critical, and there are incidents, he said, where there’s no guarantee victims will be conscious long enough to complete calls to 911 or anyone else.

“My aunt had the more serious situation where she wasn’t feeling well and then she called 911. When the ambulance came, it turned out she needed emergency open heart surgery,” he said.

“That’s why I made this app. I made it for my parents; I made it for my aunt. I basically made it for all of my family members.”

Useful features of the app include its Nearby tab that offers a directory of non-emergency services in the area. Police and fire stations, hospitals, auto repair shops, towing companies, motels and more are listed with their location and phone number.

The app is easily modified too. If out of the country, for example, the autodial 911 button can be edited to call a different emergency number. The number of relatives can likewise be altered with no limit to how many are sent emergency notifications. It also works on a Wi-Fi network during poor cellular service.

Yet the most critical function, Tran said, is its quick call efficiency that requires a mere two taps on an iPhone — three on an Android — to call dispatchers. IPhone users need only to open the app and push its large rectangular red button for help.

“Whenever I design something I try not to let the user have to try and figure things out,” Tran said. “Everything I do [in design] is always in their face, that’s the best way I can put it.”

He cautions, however, that this app should not be easily accessible to children because "there's no safeguard." Once the red button is hit there’s no turning back, a 911 call will be made and first responders will be knocking.

Depending on demand, there may be a few additional features added in the near future. Things such as easy access to cellphone cameras would be helpful for documentation and recording, Tran said. Other improvements may include a way to navigate between 911 Help SMS' menu and his popular app Fix311, used to report roadway damage. For now, Tran hopes the app will be a beneficial resource for emergency victims and their families.

“It's just an extra tool,” Tran said.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.