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Next-Gen Tech Is Helping More than 1,000 Jurisdictions Improve Emergency Response

Maricopa County, Ariz., has already seen an increased ability to pinpoint the locations of 911 callers, especially those who are indoors, which used to be a significant challenge.

Emergency responders in Maricopa County, Ariz., used to struggle with pinpointing the exact locations of 911 callers, especially those who were indoors.

Liz Graeber, the 911 administrator for Maricopa, said the technology they’ve used since 2005 provides an X-Y coordinate at best, but at worst all dispatchers get is the cell tower and the phone number that belongs to the caller in distress. That, however, has recently changed.

Maricopa County is now one of more than 1,000 jurisdictions nationwide that has deployed RapidSOS’ NG911 Clearinghouse emergency platform, which allows emergency responders to access data from the existing software in millions of connected devices to better serve 911 callers. The company hasn’t released a full list of software partners, but would theoretically look like is something like this: You’re in a car accident and you dial 911. The platform then gives emergency responders access to location data that you’ve enabled in one of your apps, allowing a fire truck and ambulance an instant and precise idea of where help is needed.

“We’re still getting the data we used to get,” Graeber said. “None of that service has changed, but we’re getting additional supplemental information delivered by RapidSOS that will pinpoint the location more accurately than we’ve been able to in the past.”

This is especially useful for dispatchers who receive calls from residents who are indoors. In the past, for example, if someone had a medical emergency in a shopping mall, dispatchers would generally only be able to tell that they were in fact in the mall. Any other information would have had to be communicated verbally — which can present a problem for the severely injured or those who are imperiled by a live shooter.

Now, however, Graeber said Maricopa emergency responders know exactly where a caller is within the mall, based on information that is “crazy good.”

“This will absolutely improve response times,” Graeber said. “If you talk to any 911 operator, they will all give you instances of a call they’ve taken where there’s been long delays because the caller has been new to an area or just visiting an area.”

Simply put, responders will no longer have to rely on rough estimates of locations of verbalized info. Graeber also described the training as simple, while noting that it is also ongoing because they have 1,000 people in their area who need to be trained on it. Maricopa is accomplishing this by training point people from various areas of work and sending them back to train their co-workers.

The jurisdiction is also testing functionality that takes information from callers who are using ride sharing apps. Once entirely functional, the platform will likely be able to provide responders with a description of the vehicle and its license plates that a caller is riding in.

Michael Martin, RapidSOS CEO, said that this is all provided to public safety agencies at no cost for receiving data because the company doesn’t want to create a financial barrier between government and full adoption. The company noted in a press release that it is partnering with IoT companies in order to provide this data at no cost to public safety agencies. Martin also noted that the Federal Communications Commission estimates that more than 10,000 lives could be saved each year if 911 responders were better able to locate callers. 

This technology has quickly been instituted in more than 1,000 jurisdictions. So far, the partner companies that RapidSOS has announced include Apple, Uber and Waze.

The technology was built with input from more than 4,000 public safety communications employees nationwide, which Martin and his team worked closely with during the past five years of development.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.