RapidSOS is run by Michael Martin, 30 years old, who became interested in 911 shortly after moving to New York City in 2012. While walking home late one night, he thought he was being followed. Rather than dial 911 and talk to an operator, his first instinct was to summon a taxi via the Uber app.
Afterward, “I was like, ‘There ought to be an app for 911,’” he said. Mr. Martin quit his job at a venture-capital fund and enrolled at Harvard University so he could explore the idea.
In 2014, Mr. Martin launched a 911 app, now called Haven, with co-founder Nick Horelik. But after talking with more than 100 of public-safety officials during a 2014 road trip across the country, he soon learned an app wasn’t the right approach.
“I was one of the biggest critics,” said retired Rear Adm. David Simpson, who met Mr. Martin several years ago when he was in charge of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. Now, Mr. Simpson has joined with RapidSOS as a paid adviser. “They have listened and learned.”
An app is a bad idea, Mr. Simpson says, because it would be hard to ensure that the roughly 6,500 answering centers in the U.S.—many using different technologies—could receive the app’s calls and other data. If it fails, who would be liable?
The FCC recently sought public comments on 911 apps after the National Association of State 911 Administrators raised alarms about security features app makers offer to consumers that might not work.
Christy Williams, the head of 911 in the area surrounding Dallas, was one of the first to share her skepticism about apps with Mr. Martin. She’ll never forget his answer: “We’re a bunch of geeks who can make any technology happen and we can make what you need,” she recalls.
Mr. Martin refocused RapidSOS on the database, which is now integrating with companies such as Motorola Solutions and Airbus DS Communications that make call-answering software used by 911 operators. Once activated, the 911 answering systems will be able to ping the RapidSOS database for better location and other data, such as health information supplied by the user, after a cellphone call arrives.
The final hurdle is persuading handset makers like Apple
Inc. and Alphabet
Inc.’sGoogle to update their smartphones
so that when someone dials 911 the device automatically populates the RapidSOS database with the caller’s more precise location. Google and Apple declined to comment.
RapidSOS says the database will be free for 911. It hopes to make money by charging car makers or alarm monitoring companies to integrate with it so those devices could pass rich data to 911 if an emergency is detected.
RapidSOS isn’t the only company working on 911 location technology. And wireless carriers hope their solution will be running by 2018. The carriers’ plan is to log the location of Wi-Fi hot spots and other devices to augment GPS data.
In trials on test devices late last year in Texas, RapidSOS was able to deliver location information to the 911 center that was more accurate than what the wireless carriers delivered. In one case, RapidSOS targeted the caller within a few feet while the carrier data was off by about 1,000 yards, said Rodger Mann, the 911 mapping expert for the district.
“They’re onto something here,” said Steve Souder, who ran 911 in Fairfax County Virginia for years. “Anything is better than what we have now.”
Want to work with RapidSOS? Request a demo today: