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The 9-1-1 Challenge Explained: RapidSOS’ Role in Transforming the 9-1-1 Infrastructure

January 1, 2020
Clearinghouse Challenge

The 9-1-1 infrastructure was built over fifty years ago for landline phones, with a system that never envisioned mobile phones, let alone contextual data. The system is structured around the concept of a caller verbally communicating their emergency to a dispatcher, and the antiquated technology doesn’t allow for much deviation from that.

9-1-1 telecommunicators do amazing work managing 650,000 emergencies a day with limited information. The challenge is delivering rich data to first responders to help them improve response times and save more lives.

How does 9-1-1 work?

To understand why we’re working so hard on this challenge, let’s set the stage. Typically, a 9-1-1 call works like this:

  1. Caller dials 9-1-1 in an emergency
  2. Call is routed to the local Emergency Communications Center
  3. Telecommunicator at local ECC answers
  4. Caller articulates emergency, answers questions from Telecommunicator
  5. Telecommunicator dispatches resources based on emergency (e.g. fire, police)

Between these steps, varying amounts of information are forwarded to 9-1-1. If the call comes from a landline phone, the associated address is pulled from a database of addresses and displayed on the dispatcher’s screen. However, if it comes from a mobile phone, which over 80 percent of 9-1-1 calls do, the first location the 9-1-1 dispatcher sees on their screen is simply the location of the cell tower that the call pinged off of.

The system then tries to get a more accurate estimate from cell-tower triangulation and GPS, but this often takes 20-30 seconds to arrive (and is therefore 20-30 seconds behind realtime), and can be hundreds of feet off the mark.

For callers on the move, the system is behind, and if a caller hangs up before the location updates, dispatchers have limited information to work with. The FCC estimates that over 10,000 lives could be saved each year if we were able to reach callers just one minute faster. In an emergency, a few minutes can be the difference between life and death.

Transforming the voice and data paradigm

The 9-1-1 system is designed around the call: someone in need has to verbally communicate their emergency to a dispatcher, who asks a series of questions to identify and verify the emergency. But what happens if someone isn’t able to speak, can’t articulate their emergency while panicked, doesn’t know where they are, or can’t get to the phone?

9-1-1 telecommunicators have relied on their own ingenuity, intuition, and training to overcome these obstacles, but there’s more that can be done: there’s no reason why our smartphones can know so much about us, but the people tasked with saving our lives can’t. 

Through the NG911 initiative, the public and private sector are collaborating to get more data into 9-1-1 centers so first responders can make better decisions, respond quicker, and allocate their resources more efficiently. By changing this paradigm, we can help our first responders make data-driven decisions on the way to calls, and dramatically change the type of response they can provide.

From supporting text-to-911 services to real time map overviews of their jurisdictions, RapidSOS is at the frontlines of these efforts, bringing together partners from technology and IoT industries and the public safety apparatus to modernize our emergency response. 

Through a two-sided platform, we’re facilitating the exchange of data, including location, profile, and medical information, from connected devices and apps, to first responders in 9-1-1 centers and in the field. Together with Apple and Google we are helping to solve the 9-1-1 mobile location challenge. And with partners like Uber and MedicAlert, we are delivering critical incident-specific and profile information to responders.

RapidSOS technology is currently active in over 4,500 9-1-1 centers nationwide, covering over 90 percent of the population. Our customer success team cultivates relationships with every one of those centers to ensure their staff are fully trained and up-to-date on our product, and we’re constantly leveraging their feedback to provide new tools to support their work.

More than just saving lives

As more data partners join the platform, 9-1-1 will have better coverage, better visibility, and more situational awareness for emergency calls. Each additional piece of information can shave seconds off the time it takes to dispatch, saving more lives and reducing the time and labor needed to do it. 

But what’s the incentive for tech partners to participate? It goes deeper than the apparent need for the system to modernize. There’s three main drivers: table stakes safety features of the future,the network effect, and saving lives. 

By establishing a direct data link to 9-1-1, connected devices can build brand equity through tangible safety features, offering assistance in what could potentially be their customers’ or users’ darkest hours. It’s rapidly becoming an expectation for customers in a market of highly specialized and minutely differentiated competitors: consumers want to buy from brands that fit their lifestyles and share their values. Investing in their safety is a material way to protect them, whether you’re selling home security products, connected cars, or smart watches. 

Secondly, as more companies adopt safety features like this, the network effect will place an increased emphasis on safety features, as consumers will demand more from other, closely related products and businesses. The more data partners join the platform, the more safety the market can provide for them – and the more scrutiny will be placed on companies who don’t participate. 

RapidSOS technology is already helping to save lives by empowering 9-1-1 telecommunicators to do the things they’ve always done: think on their feet, make informed decisions under pressure, and go above and beyond the call of duty. For example, ELS data from Android phones helped save 22-year-old Jeremey Schmeltzer’s life, when he had an asthma attack and couldn’t breathe. Even though he dialed 9-1-1, he couldn’t communicate his emergency, let alone his location.

Because the telecommunicator had access to his device location through RapidSOS, Jeremy was able to receive help without saying a word. There are countless other stories like this one, thanks to the ingenuity of our first responders and the data we can provide for them.

Data-driven emergency response

Every partner of RapidSOS is helping to fundamentally change the way the 9-1-1 system works: by empowering the heroes behind the headsets, we’re helping to create an infrastructure for data-driven emergency response. We can overcome the limitations of a system built for a different time, and help our first responders keep up with changing communications paradigms. 

To learn more about how RapidSOS works, check out our products page or request a demo to get started today.

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