More than 250 million times a year, Americans call 911 in some of their darkest hours. Whether a car breaks down in the middle of a snow storm, a family member experiences a heart attack or a home or business is broken into, we know help is just a phone call away. However, few of us are aware of how the emergency response system actually works. How does a call taker dispatch a first responder? What information is sent to telecommunicators when a call for help is made? It surprises many that, until recently, the 911 infrastructure was so outdated that something as simple as locating a caller could not be done accurately.

Our heroic first responders often overcome the obstacle of an antiquated emergency response system without issue. But you don’t have to look far to hear a story that details the consequences of 911 not arriving fast enough, or dispatchers sending help to the wrong location or without the right equipment, simply because they couldn’t receive sufficient information about the emergency.


911 Is Built on an Outdated Infrastructure

Before founding RapidSOS, I left my home in rural Indiana for New York to pursue a career in venture capital. Leaving my office late one night, I found myself barely escaping a mugging a few blocks from my apartment in Harlem. That was the first time I’d ever really thought about calling 911, and I realized how difficult it is to somehow get out your phone, dial a number and have a coherent conversation in an emergency.

Just a few months later while I was in graduate school, my father fell from the roof of my childhood home while clearing snow during a blizzard. Alone in freezing temperatures and with a shattered hip and broken wrist, he had no ability to dial 911. It wasn’t until that evening when my mother came home from work that she was able to call for help, while frantically trying to warm his body.

The issue comes down to the legacy voice-only infrastructure behind most of our 911 systems. When a 911 telecommunicator answers an emergency call, he or she is tasked with acquiring as much information as possible from the caller — including the location and nature of the emergency. Often, callers can be panicked, injured or otherwise unable to reliably articulate the information these telecommunicators need to guide first responders to the scene.

Telecommunicators rely on a suite of technologies to gather the necessary information during an emergency. However, since the 911 infrastructure was built in the 1960s for analog phones, Emergency Communication Centers (ECCs) can only receive reliable location data if the call is from a landline phone — yet 80 percent of 911 calls come from mobile phones. According to the FCC, more than 10,000 lives could be saved annually if we could more accurately locate people in an emergency.

The growing wave of IoT devices, from smartphones to home security systems, has created an influx of data that can help first responders save lives. For example, apps like Uber can track our mobile location in real-time, smart thermometers can detect temperature changes during fires and security systems can simultaneously detect movement and share live video feeds. While our Uber drivers can find us with the press of a button, our first responders are forced to rely on archaic technology when mere seconds can mean the difference between life and death.

These real-time data streams can make a huge impact on our emergency response system, but 911 lacks the technology to access this information securely and efficiently.


How Do We Fix Our Emergency Number System?

So how do we solve this challenge? The answer lies in giving ECCs and first responders access to critical emergency data.

RapidSOS built its emergency response data platform to provide first responders with life-saving data from connected devices, sensors and monitoring systems and platforms. Many ECCs access the RapidSOS Platform through our cloud-based software, RapidSOS Portal, while others utilize integrations with existing softwares or a combination of both.

This work began in 2013, when as grad students RapidSOS Co-Founder Nick Horelik, and I worked to understand the emergency response process. We studied more than 10 million 911 calls to learn when, where and how to insert data into the existing emergency response flows used by over 6,000 ECCs across the United States. Ultimately, we realized that this would take a partner approach — by ensuring that data is available throughout the public safety technology ecosystem and every major software system.

RapidSOS collaborates with organizations such as Uber, the American Red Cross, Sirius XM Connected Vehicle Services, the American Heart Association, the MedicAlert Foundation and more to further revolutionize the way the 911 system and emergency response works.

Through partnerships like these, we are working to add an extra layer of preparedness by sharing critical emergency, demographic and medical data directly with 911 and first responders.


Protection When it Matters Most

In a time when Americans are looking for new ways to protect themselves, their families,= and their communities, ensuring that critical data is immediately available to first responders can provide meaningful differentiation in response effectiveness in an emergency.  According to a survey by DKC analytics of over 1,000 American households, 99 percent of Americans want 911 to receive additional data from their connected devices during emergencies.

The same survey found that over half of Americans do not believe the information shared with 911 from a voice call alone is a sufficient way of accessing the right help. By sharing additional data from connected devices through the emergency response data platform, RapidSOS can help first responders improve response times and the effectiveness of emergency response.

Protecting Lives & Privacy With Real-Time Encrypted Data

Sharing data in emergencies requires sensitivity and the highest standards of security. To ensure every person’s privacy, RapidSOS only triggers the pathway between a device and 911 when an emergency call is placed. Since the emergency response data platform is a clearinghouse, RapidSOS neither stores nor sells data, and only makes data available for a short period of time in a 911 center.

Furthermore, only accredited ECCs are able to receive data from calls within a verified geofence of their legal jurisdiction, meaning additional data is only available for calls within the community a 911 center serves.

Since location is the most crucial aspect of getting help in emergencies, callers automatically agree to sharing their location with 911. Device location sent from mobile devices is end-to-end encrypted, and used to help validate the situation a caller describes. This real-time device location is especially important for moving calls, whether someone is in a moving vehicle or lost on a hiking trail. Lives are being saved thanks to these efforts; we hear stories every day about how ECCs are using device-based location and additional data to locate callers with pinpoint accuracy and to deliver personalized care in a timely manner.


The Future of Emergency Response

As IoT and 5G technology advances, more complex and varied forms of data will be available from a variety of different sources. It’s crucial we provide first responders a secure, safe and actionable way to access and interact with this information, especially as the nature of emergency response evolves.

The emergency response system of the future will see a cooperation between public safety, communities and the technology that unifies them. Transparency, trust and cooperation, supported by the latest technology, will help push our public safety system to greater heights, and protect more people than ever before.