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Can Private 911 Apps Help Improve Emergency Response?

A company called Rescu says it can enable people to get quicker help in emergencies — and help governments improve 911 services. The tool joins other efforts at upgrading dispatch tech in this increasingly mobile age.

As public agencies strive to upgrade technology in a national push, a San Diego-based company is positioning its new app as a way to help take pressure off hardworking emergency dispatchers.

That app, called Rescu, enables subscribers to get in touch with public agency emergency communication centers via the company’s own private dispatch professionals. In that sense, it shares some similarities with home alarm companies, and could potentially become more familiar to public agency dispatchers if the product catches on.

People who subscribe to Rescu — pricing starts at $5 per month — pre-load address, emergency contact and other information into the app, then tap on it to request help. The company’s dispatchers then can contact public agency emergency dispatchers on subscribers’ behalf as the app sends out text messages about the emergency to subscribers’ designated contacts.

The process injects another layer of communication into stressed and hurried emergency situations.

According to Paolo Piscatelli, founder and CEO of Rescu, the benefits outweigh the potential hurdles. He says that many people end up waiting up to 20 minutes for their 911 calls to be answered. One doesn’t have to look hard for stories about increasing call volumes and related problems, especially during the pandemic.

Rescu dispatchers, speaking the same language, as it were, as 911 operators, can more efficiently describe the nature of any emergency reported through the app, he said. Another part of the Rescu value proposition, at least according to the company, is that the app leverages an emergency dispatch API.

“We want to help 911 operators,” he said.

Besides that, 911 is a “crapshoot. People are calling in about not getting chicken nuggets,” he said, explaining that all the trivial calls into public agency emergency communication centers can clog the system and delay responses for true emergencies.


“State and local governments don’t have infinite budgets,” said Piscatelli.

He was driven to create this app after his father suffered a medical emergency and had to wait 30 minutes for an ambulance after calling 911. His father survived but now Piscatelli sees it as his mission to lend a helping hand to emergency responses as more people rely even more on mobile communications.

“Public safety departments desperately need an overhaul for their emergency networks,” he said. “Calls are only increasing, and we are trying to help any way we can.”

Indeed, Piscatelli sees his app as disruptive, and imagines a role for it in the general emergency space.

“911 is still built on the concept of a 100-year-old communication system,” he said.


Even so, it’s all but unthinkable that apps such as Rescu will ever replace public emergency communication centers — for one thing, laws limit access to certain sensitive data to law enforcement agencies.

But it’s not out of the realm of possibility that 911 operators will be dealing with a growing number of response requests from private companies in the coming few years.

“I think there are definitely niches for (these types of private apps),” said April Heinze, 911 and public safety answering point operations director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), which advocates for state-of-the-art 911 systems and training.

For instance, she talked about a private company that might provide a service for a college student walking back to the dorm late at night, with a dispatcher on the phone with that student until he or she returns safely.

Such “apps can be very beneficial, but they will not bypass or replace 911,” she said.


A big challenge for the rise of private emergency dispatch apps concerns training of a company’s own operators.

Piscatelli says Rescu employs professionally trained dispatchers who meet top industry standards, but Ty Wooten, director of government affairs for the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED) — a group that promotes education in the field — said he is skeptical.

While no national minimum quality standards govern 911 operators, Wooten said, his organization does regular training and certification on emergency dispatch protocols for various agencies and groups, including OnStar, the General Motors subsidiary that sells subscription-based security, emergency and other services for drivers.

Wooten, while also seeing a potential but limited emergency dispatch role for these apps, also said he has doubts about their usefulness in those tight minutes when people are seeking help for emergencies.

That’s because people are creatures of habit, and even as more of them rely on mobile apps for a variety of daily tasks, old ways of doing things are hard to break.

“We’ve spent all these years training people to dial 911,” he said. “The reality is you are going to fall back on that training.”

Not only that, but Wooten, pointing out that he has at least six screens of apps on his phone — and groups of apps within those screens — said he wonders if people in an emergency will navigate all that clutter.


Emergency dispatch technology, of course, is going through its own disruptive phase even without the energy brought by privately owned apps such as Rescu.

Companies such as RapidDeploy and RapidSOS, among others, are working to bring the latest technology to emergency dispatch centers to help responders better locate people in need of assistance, and to provide more on-scene data and other help to police, fire and medical crews.

Such work generally is part of the broader Next-Generation 911 push in the U.S. to bring those emergency communication centers into the 21st century.

That push is also generally the aim of Rescu, but those other companies tend to integrate their tools into the technological infrastructure of 911 centers instead of providing outside apps. And for experts such as Wooten and Heinze, the important tasks of those ongoing improvements involve working with public agencies to boost data location and device connections with increasingly mobile citizens.

According to Heinze, between 40 and 50 percent of the emergency dispatch operations in the U.S. have at least “moved in the direction” of Next-Generation 911 upgrades. That includes agencies involved in the RFP process, she said.

“We are quite a ways down that path,” she said, “but then we have the remainder of the U.S. that really needs that assistance.”


As for Piscatelli, he says the near future could bring new possibilities for the Rescu app even as public agencies keep on the Next-Generation 911 path.

He said the company is working to integrate the app into voice assistance technology such as Alexa, part of the broader smart home and smart city push. Wearables also could be another opening for Rescu. After all, he said, they already keep track of the health of wearers and can send alerts.

The company also continues to reach out to first responders as Piscatelli works to boost the popularity of Rescu.

“We are managing relationships with first responders in all 50 states,” he said. “It’s all just a matter of education.”
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in New Orleans.