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Missouri Cops Pilot Tech to ‘Make Way’ for First Responders

MakeWay Safety is piloting a cloud-based safety platform at several St. Louis area police departments that allows first responders and other personnel to emit a warning to drivers when they’re approaching on roadways.

It’s a phone call or visit that no one ever wants to receive. The piercing sound of sirens in the background sets a haunting tone as an officer’s voice relays the devastating news of a loved one’s injury or untimely passing.

For Mike Walsh, this heart-wrenching call came when he learned that his niece, an officer with the St. Louis Police Department, had been involved in an on-duty rollover crash. As she navigated a bustling intersection, the sirens that should have alerted drivers to yield were swallowed by the towering buildings. The collision would propel her vehicle several feet and lead to many months of rehabilitation.

Walsh believes he’s created a technology that will help prevent events like this from happening to first responders in the future — by urging motorists to “make way.”

MakeWay Safety, a St. Louis-based technology company founded by Walsh in 2013, is currently piloting its cloud-based digital alert system with the St. Louis Fire Department, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, the St. Louis County and St. Charles County police departments and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department.

“The problem that we have, especially in our large city environments, is that you have big buildings that kind of funnel the siren warning, so what the technology we’ve created does is create an alert system to circumvent sound barriers or driver distractions and draw attention back to the road to be prepared for that emergency vehicle approaching in 3 to 5 seconds,” Walsh told Government Technology. “We believe that the driver of the vehicle that hit my niece would have received a notification using our MakeWay Digital Alert System and altered his driving pattern, allowing ... her to actually enter and exit that intersection safely.”

The alert system was created to inform motorists about approaching first responder vehicles and make them aware of upcoming Department of Transportation (DOT) work zones, through an audio and visual warning.

According to a press release, the platform is controlled through a cloud-based center that identifies motorists in the path of a converging emergency vehicle and then disseminates this data to smartphones and in-vehicle information systems. A small transponder is placed in each emergency vehicle that is triggered as soon as an officer or other emergency vehicle’s sirens are engaged.

Currently, MakeWay alerts can only be received by connecting with the Waze mobile traffic app, but soon a MakeWay app will be available for the public to download following the testing period.

“We built the system on the AWS government cloud, which is a highly secured piece of technology that focuses on protecting data, with the end goal being — through partnerships with cellphone companies and connected car manufacturers — that this system will be used as an involuntary solution to alert drivers that differs from a typical navigation app that you must access or have open to utilize,” said Bill Bader, MakeWay’s president and CEO.

The St. Louis Police Department is currently piloting the MakeWay system in five patrol vehicles.

Sgt. Tracy Panus, public information supervisor for the St. Louis County police department, believes software like MakeWay could be a life-saving tool for both officers and drivers.

“When we talk about safety as it applies to first responders, we’re looking at the instances where we’ve got an officer stopped on the side of the road — maybe on a traffic stop or something like that,” Panus said. “Drivers will be alerted to where we are, which is important because in today’s world, it’s easy to become distracted whether listening to the radio or talking on our phones, we’re not paying attention as we should be. And this software can alert drivers that emergency vehicles are on the way in the area and increase awareness of their surroundings.”

According to Panus, integration into the current dispatch system has been easy.

“Essentially, it doesn’t require our officers to do anything extra, which is good,” she said. “We don’t want our officers to take any unnecessary, extra steps when heading to a call or pursuing someone. They’re already paying heightened attention to their surroundings, so it’s great this software activates as soon as we turn on our overhead lights, with no additional hurdles for officers.”

Because police officers, firefighters and EMS personnel all have different needs, Walsh said the company has gone to great lengths to create a holistic tech ecosystem.

“We wanted to learn the majority of the conditions each sector faces — as much as we [can] — so that we have a defined grasp of what our first responders witness daily,” he said. “What we’ve learned has been included in the warning conditions and intertwined into the capability of our technology. We know that technology is never finished, so we’re constantly upgrading and modifying to meet the risks that various types of first responders and emergency medical personnel face.”

According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, emergency medical personnel are at a higher risk of crashing than other first responders, with an estimated 6,500 accidents involving ambulances each year, and 35 percent of crashes resulting in injury or a fatality.

“With over 2 million emergency personnel interactions per day, we see that as over 2 million opportunities where someone could be injured or worse,” Bader added. “Because we’ve all been in the situation as drivers where you’re at an intersection, you have a green light and you hear a siren, but you don’t know what direction it’s coming from. You’re being rushed by the driver behind you, while wondering if the ambulance is approaching from the left or right. Well, this tech tells you the exact direction from which the emergency vehicle is approaching, whether it’s from behind, to the left, or from the right.”

This type of situation also makes the timing of alerts vital and is one complex configuration that can vary depending on what type of first responder is involved.

“We don’t want the alert to be sent too long before an emergency vehicle arrives because we don’t want the driver to lose a connection to the warning,” Walsh explained. “Each department can set this specification up according to its needs. The alert might need to be deployed farther out for those approaching DOT work zones, versus our emergency personnel that might want that alert time to be a little shorter so that you’re receiving the notification in ample time to alter your driving pattern, but not so far out that you forget there’s an oncoming emergency vehicle in your vicinity.”

Tom Cooke, a partner at MakeWay Safety, said the sweet spot for alerts lies in the speed of an oncoming vehicle.

“It’s more about the timeframe that allows the driver to take defensive action and do it in a period where it’s not too much of an advanced warning, and that’s generally a sweet spot of about 20 to 30 seconds,” Cooke said. “The distance is based on the converging speed of the emergency vehicle and the civilian. However, somebody traveling at 30 mph is going to get that notification differently than someone traveling at 75 mph because it’s based on speed, not distance.”

The St. Louis regional pilot will run through July, and according to Walsh, they’ve already received very productive feedback from departments that have piloted the system.

“The response has been extremely positive from our first responders and the DOT departments we’ve worked with,” Walsh said. “And they have given us additional things to think about because no technology is ever truly finished. It’s always growing, adapting and changing, we are constantly speaking with them to make this system better for first responders and drivers.”
Ashley Silver is a staff writer for Government Technology. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Montevallo and a graduate degree in public relations from Kent State University. Silver is also a published author with a wide range of experience in editing, communications and public relations.