SF, Uber Use Location-Tracking to Speed 911 Response Times

With RapidSOS software, emergency dispatchers in San Francisco can better pinpoint caller locations based on their cellphone data, improving response times, a feature that extends to Uber users needing 911 assistance.

by Gwendolyn Wu, San Francisco Chronicle / April 23, 2019
(TNS) — An ambulance racing toward a single-room occupancy hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood wouldn’t have known where to go in October 2018 had it not been for a ping from a smartphone.

The caller had just fallen down a stairwell inside the SRO hotel and the only location the person could provide was a nearby auto body shop, said Robert Smuts, a deputy director for San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management.

But with new location technology, a dispatcher entered the victim’s cellphone number into a real-time location tracking program called RapidSOS, shrinking the search area from what would have been an eight-block radius to a specific building on the 100 block of Turk Street.

“The enhanced location data gave us a smaller radius of uncertainty, and the radius touched on just two city buildings,” Smuts said.

In an effort to shorten emergency response times in San Francisco, the city announced on Monday that it is now using location data from RapidSOS, a New York-based public safety tech company, and ride-hailing company Uber to improve location coordinates generated from 911 calls.

An increasing amount of emergency calls are made from cellphones, said Michelle Cahn, RapidSOS’s director of community engagement. The new technology should allow emergency responders to narrow down the location of such callers and replace existing 911 technology that was built for landlines and tied to home addresses.

Cellphone location data currently given to dispatchers when they receive a 911 call can be vague, especially if the person can’t articulate their exact location, according to the Department of Emergency Management.

But if a dispatcher can narrow down where the emergency is happening, that increases the chance of a timely response and better result, Cahn said.

“It doesn’t matter what’s going on with the emergency if we don’t know where it is,” she said.

RapidSOS shares its location data — collected by Apple and Google for their in-house map apps — free of charge to public safety agencies. San Francisco’s 911 call center adopted the data service in September 2018.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates agencies could save as many as 10,000 lives a year if they shave a minute off response times. Federal officials issued new rules to improve wireless 911 calls in 2015, asking mobile carriers to provide more accurate locations to call centers. Carriers are required to find a way to triangulate the caller’s location within 50 meters — a much smaller radius than the eight blocks city officials were initially presented in October when the caller dialed 911.

RapidSOS isn’t beholden to those requirements because it doesn’t provide cell service, but the technology’s accuracy for most callers is within 10 meters, Cahn said.

Real-time tracking will also extend to Uber riders and drivers in transit via a 911 assistance button on the ride screen. When pressed, the app automatically dials 911.

“As soon as they say they’re in an Uber, dispatchers can query the information,” said Eric Gornitsky, a public safety supervisor at the Department of Emergency Management. The company then sends driver and rider information, travel route, vehicle description and current location to dispatchers.

Bay Area prosecutors are trying multiple cases against ride-hailing drivers accused of picking up passengers and then sexually assaulting them. Most of the cases involve men who allegedly pretended to be the ride that was called.

An Uber spokesman said the assault cases are not related to the company deploying the 911 button.

“It’s been a months-long process” for the call centers, said Uber spokesman Andrew Hasbun. “They have to go through RapidSOS training and get software into their centers.”

Riders can already access the 911 assistance button in a wide swath of the North Bay and Peninsula, and in pockets of the East Bay where new emergency location technology has been implemented, according to Uber.

The Department of Emergency Management said the new technology is still in the early stages of implementation, so data on response times is still limited. However, dispatchers are getting faster at finding people in need of help, Smuts said.

“Our dispatch center is becoming a leader at the forefront of the tech process,” he said.

©2019 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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