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Chula Vista, Calif., Police Get 911 Calls Livestreamed

Officers using the software can listen in on the caller's conversation with the dispatcher, not only to hear tone of voice but every detail shared, paired with a map that can pinpoint call location within feet.

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(TNS) — Chula Vista, Calif., police officers are getting a quicker start on emergencies thanks to new technology that allows 911 calls to be sent directly to computers in their patrol cars.

Instead of waiting for a 911 operator to type out their notes and then have the information relayed by a dispatcher, officers can hear the call in real time and begin heading to emergencies while the caller is still on the line — potentially shaving crucial minutes off response time.

The department began testing out the livestreaming program months ago after the software was developed by the company HigherGround Inc.

Officers using the software can listen in on the caller's conversation with the dispatcher, not only to hear tone of voice but every detail shared by the caller. The program is paired with a map that can pinpoint the location of the call within feet.

"If you need help in a canyon, maybe you're lost or you need help in a parking lot, they don't have to drive around the parking lot — they know where you're sitting or standing," said Chula Vista police Lt. Don Redmond.

Drone pilots began testing the web-based application late last year and patrol officers were outfitted with it a couple months ago.

So they don't get overwhelmed listening to every 911 call received by the dispatch center, each officer can set a perimeter so they are alerted only when 911 calls are within a half mile or a mile of their patrol car. The city receives around 100,000 911 calls a year, Redmond said.

Police officials say the livestreamed calls give officers more information so they can have a better response plan and be prepared to de-escalate situations when possible.

"The officer... can get on the (radio) and say, 'I'm listening to Live911, can you ask the call taker to get this information?'" Redmond said. "He is hearing directly from the caller. It really streamlines the ability of the community to talk to our officers."

The idea for Live911 came from retired Chula Vista police Capt. Fritz Reber, who thought of it after spending time supervising Chula Vista's dispatch center. He knew the whole process of having a call taker type in a call and then having a dispatcher come on the radio to broadcast it could take anywhere from 40 seconds "if they're really good" to two minutes or more.

He wrote about it in a paper while attending Peace Officers Standards and Training , also known as P.O.S.T., Command College when he was a lieutenant. Reber's paper was subsequently printed in Police Chief magazine, giving a wider audience to his vision on closing the "911 gap" — the time it takes between someone calling in an emergency and the call being dispatched.

"The need for a human operator in dispatch to evaluate and vet information serves as a constant chokepoint in the communication process," Reber wrote."That time between the citizen's mouth, through the filter of a call-taker and then into CAD (computer-aided dispatch), is a yet unexploited gap that is begging to be explored. It is the last step toward the goal of instant and perfect transmission of information. It is the game of telephone with only two players."

Closing that gap, he wrote, could not only get officers to scenes faster but give them a clearer picture as an incident unfolds.

In his paper, he recalled the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland in 2014 as "another tragic example of communication failure." A citizen in a park called 911 to report seeing a guy with a gun who was pointing it all around.

That was relayed to the two officers, who ended up fatally shooting the boy, who was playing with a toy gun. What was not relayed to officers, Reber notes, were comments by the caller that the gunman was "probably a juvenile" and that the gun was "probably fake."

"Consider how this incident could have unfolded had the officers been able to hear the words 'probably fake.' Consider what information they may have gathered by hearing for themselves the tone of voice and apparent nonchalance of the caller," he wrote. "None of this came through to the officers."

Reber's idea became a reality after he began working with HigherGround, a Canoga Park-based company that develops solution-based software.

He retired from the Police Department in 2018 after a 27-year career. He is now a consultant with HigherGround, which has named him as one of the inventors on its patent application. He also works for Skydio, a drone company based in Redwood City.

Reber says he's pleased to see the product get developed and marketed to police agencies.

"It is very gratifying," he said. "You have these dreams you'll go to your grave with somebody stealing your great idea."

Getting an idea to be developed into a real product was "a personal win for me," he said.

The technology already has led to some positive outcomes in Chula Vista.

In May, someone called 911 and hung up. When the dispatcher called back, the woman said there was no emergency and the call had been made by mistake. But a drone pilot listening in thought he heard something in the background and decided to check it out anyway.

"Now the officer can hear the call, can hear the urgency, can hear the tone of your voice, that you're scared," Redmond said.

A drone was launched and flew over the house. There, the pilot spotted someone coming out of a window carrying a knife and watched as she used it to scratch up a car before swinging it at a woman.

"We immediately sent a patrol officer," Redmond said. "The female dropped the knife when the officer got there. They got to get her some help. It ended positively with nobody being injured."

In another incident, a patrol officer listening to a live-streamed 911 call was able to catch up to an assault suspect who was being followed by the victim. Without the livestreaming, Redmond said he would have been farther away and left hunting for the vehicle.

"We know we are a progressive agency," Redmond said. "We use technology and see how we can best serve the community. We saw this as an opportunity to provide better service to our community."

After months of testing by law enforcement officers in Chula Vista, Clovis, Calif., and Polk County, Fla., Live911 was officially launched and made available for purchase by other police agencies earlier this month. The company did not disclose pricing information.

"Live911 is an annual subscription service based on the number of concurrent licenses that police agency wishes to have active during a shift," a company spokesman said in an e-mail. "Our goal is to have affordable solution that helps first responders be more effective in providing public safety."

©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.