New app helps first responders locate Arizonans in need of assistance

Posted at 6:21 PM, Feb 22, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-23 14:02:12-05

The calls for help come into the Phoenix Fire Department’s Regional Dispatch Center, all day, every day.

"I need to double check to make sure she is breathing... ok?” said one call taker.

"Is anyone else in the vehicle that rolled over?" said another.

Each passing second during an emergency is maybe more crucial than the last — when lives are at stake.

"If there is a challenge to get a cell signal, then there is a challenge for you to send [location] data," said Liz Graeber, the 911 administrator for the dispatch center.

Graeber said in 2016, the Phoenix Fire Regional Dispatch Center handled 3.1 million 911 calls, and 80 percent of those calls came from cell phones.

Graeber said figuring out where the emergency is can be tricky, especially with cell phones.

Existing technology uses cell phone towers and GPS enabled phone features to estimate caller locations. Those estimates can range from 30 feet to several miles. Now add the human element, and sometimes callers do not know where they are.

A 2015 FCC report shows locating 911 callers “even with traditional location accuracy technologies optimized, often do not work effectively indoors, or at all.”

"This really is a challenge in this country, locating wireless 911 callers,” said Michael Martin, CEO of RapidSOS.

Martin said his team has developed an app that goes a step further to locate people who need help.

"We essentially virtualized a landline phone at your precise location, to transmit a more accurate picture of location,” said Martin.

Martin said when calling 911 through the app, your phone can use features like the smartphone’s ability to read barometric pressure, WiFi triangulation and even Bluetooth Beacon technology to figure out a location.

"Minutes, seconds, really matter in an emergency, so your ability to transmit that information; it can certainly mean the difference in the outcome,” Martin said.

ABC15 had the Phoenix Fire Department put the app to the test.

"The information came across, the location, and the phone number, but it was a real hard and difficult time hearing [the call taker.] And that can be extremely problematic for 911. "

Overall, the app worked on the iPhone.

It was unclear if the sound quality was the result of the cell phone connection or the app.

Some of the advanced features, such as texting 911 and sending information about allergies and existing health conditions, did not come through.

The Phoenix dispatch center said they are working on a “Next Gen 911” system that someday soon, could receive that information.

Each year, the Federal Communication Commission estimates more than 10,000 lives are lost nationwide because wireless callers cannot be found in time during an emergency.