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New Tech Aids 911 Centers During COVID-19 Crisis

Modern 911 dispatch centers are relying on new technologies to bridge the information gaps typical of landline telephone calls. Now, dispatchers and first responders are pulling data with new tools to improve public safety.

by / May 13, 2020
Shutterstock/blurAZ

The coronavirus crisis is fast-tracking the adoption of new communication technologies by emergency response agencies, ushering in live video streams, text messaging and crowdsourced data to give 911 dispatchers more platforms to engage with those in need.

Traditional 911 call centers are increasingly able to take advantage of enhanced communication tools supporting videos or chats with callers, while at the same time callers have taken to volunteering personal data via app-based profiles. The combination gives first responders a wealth of knowledge relating to COVID-19 status and other pertinent data without ever having to ask for it.

As the COVID-19 crisis began to unfold in New Orleans — Orleans Parish has more than 6,700 confirmed cases and at least 477 deaths — emergency officials began using technology by Carbyne that relies on artificial intelligence and cloud computing to provide enhanced location, video and chat capabilities. Carbyne unifies the flow of life-critical information coming into emergency dispatch centers into one platform. 

“It enables the call takers to truly establish a live connection with the caller,” said Moti Elkaim, senior marketing director at Carbyne.

In New Orleans, 911 and 311 were both given access to the platform during the coronavirus crisis.

“Within a few hours, the emergency centers in New Orleans had the ability to now remotely triage callers via video chat and location,” said Elkaim.

Triaging via video chat means that first responders are able to begin treatment while putting distance between the patient and other people.

“Their medics in the 911 centers were able to assess, by video… They found that a lot of the callers that are calling had some form of panic or PTSD characteristics, and they realized it was not COVID-related,” said Elkaim. “Those assessments, those observed visually, would not have been able to be made if it was only a phone connection.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a spotlight on emergency response and health-care workers nationwide as they respond to near unprecedented levels of calls for service, too often underscoring the limitations of 911 systems operating on phone calls alone.

“This is an opportunity for us to redefine what efficient and effective government looks like,” Tyrell Morris, executive director of the Orleans Parish Communications District, said during the recent webinar hosted by Carbyne.

Across the country, text-to-911 systems have been on the rise, with about 188,000 texts sent in 2018, according to the National 911 Progress Report. Tech developments like these, and chat and video abilities, are the kinds of improvements users of 911 services have come to expect, experts argue.

“With the situation that we’re now dealing with, the importance of an interface between government… and the patient, if you will, that is making the call, is very, very vital,” said Steve Souder, director of Fairfax County 911 in Virginia, during the webinar. “These are scary times. Lets face it. And more scary for the public, than perhaps those of us that deal with emergencies 24/7. So when you have a visual between a call-taker — a 911 specialist — and someone seeking assistance, that’s a very, very valuable tool. And psychologically, has a very positive benefit for that person seeking help, whatever kind of help that may be.”

Cloud-based technologies like Carbyne also allow dispatchers and other officials to work remotely, a move that has proved important for the continued operation of a number of businesses and government agencies during the pandemic.

“No one thought about 911 working from home,” said Elkaim. “The need just doesn’t seem real. But all of a sudden, I think everyone is exposed to the true gaps that are coming out of this pandemic.”
Emergency operations systems are also turning to volunteered crowdsourcing to help dispatchers and first responders quickly learn more about the callers, without even asking. 

Smart911, for example, allows the opportunity “to crowdsource some of that information so that the owners of those properties could actually update their own information," said Michael Armitage, director of Central Dispatch in Eaton County, Mich.

“Information that can be absolutely critical when someone is calling to 911 in need of assistance, or could be critical in events like we’re dealing with today, with COVID,” said Todd Miller, chief operating officer for Rave Mobile Safety, the developer of the Smart911 app.

In Eaton County, outside of Lansing and home to about 180,000 residents, the app has been available since 2014, and officials have been encouraging residents to increase use of the service. So far, more than 8,000 profiles have been registered, which is generally interpreted as 2.5 people per profile.

“With the Smart911 profile, you can put your photos in, for example… If you uploaded that photo of your child, and heaven forbid they go missing, that information is at the fingertips of the dispatcher, first responder. It’s a way to get that information so much more quickly,” Armitage explained.

Back in Eaton County, the app — because it's predicated on users volunteering information — is cutting through roadblocks to public health information.

“The health department will let us know an address, but they won’t let us know a name of who it is,” said Armitage, citing privacy requirements limiting the sharing of personal health data.

However, if someone with a profile tests positive for the virus, they can share this information via the app, alerting first responders of their condition. This information is especially valuable for knowing when to use precious personal protective equipment.

“With the Smart911 profile, it gives us the ability to collect one other piece of data, which is if you are under ‘public health monitoring.’ So you could volunteer the information to Smart911,” Armitage added. “It’s a good piece of information to have that we can pass on to first responders. Because whether it’s an EMS call or a law enforcement call, we want to pass that on to our first responders.”

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Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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