Emergency preparedness

Re-thinking 911

911 wasn’t an original idea – like our democracy, it drew inspiration from other countries that had already implemented a single emergency number in the 20th century (Britain’s 999 in 1937 and New Zealand’s 111 in 1958).

President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice issued a report in February 1967 recommending the implementation of a single number for the police. Interestingly enough, it noted AT&T’s information line as an example of an established universal number. Later that year, firefighter Leonard Kershner, who represented the International Association of Firefighters, suggested a single number to reduce response time and reduce fire deaths.

In November, less than a year after the commission’s report, the Federal Communications Commission and AT&T began collaborating on a single nationwide number. Remember that at this time, AT&T was a legal monopoly that was exempted from the Sherman Anti-Trust act by Congress. Accordingly, its control over the phone system made it the necessary party in the implementation of any universal phone number.

AT&T announced 911 as a universal emergency number on January 12, 1968. Interestingly enough, the first 911 system to be fully operational was by Alabama Telephone Company. The president of ATC, Bob Gallagher, decided to beat AT&T to it and had his team set up the first system in Haleyville, Alabama in 35 days.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted Patent 3,881,060 to Bell Labs in 1977 for the patent that governs E911. Looking at the the National Emergency Numbers Association website, this is the system that persists today:

The E9-1-1 emergency communications and data system was designed in the 1970’s and has unique limitations as compared to the current application and Internet environment.

Almost 40 years later, why is this the case?

How 911 is regulated, implemented, and funded

To answer this, it’s important to dig into how the 911 system is regulated, implemented and funded.

As was the case in 1967 when the planning for 911 started, the FCC regulates and sets guidelines for 911. It does this under its authority for communications law, regulation and technological innovation.

However, the FCC doesn’t implement 911. That involves an exponentially higher amount of parties. Back in 1967, the main partner the FCC needed to work with was AT&T. Today, in 2015, when Ma Bell has been broken apart and there are many more communications companies with varying types of infrastructure, it takes much more coordination. On top of that, these companies are focused on driving shareholder value by outcompeting the other companies – the communications standards for emergency services aren’t their first priority. It doesn’t help the bottom line.

Beyond the communications companies who route the 911 calls are the dispatchers who receive the call, process it, and dispatch help. Depending on a number of factors, these dispatchers may be part of a county or municipal government and be a part of state and regional organizations. The challenge is that there are a lot of different organizations involved who all have their own implementation priorities and funding constraints. A sad example of these inconsistent priorities is the fact that 98% of cell phones are now capable of texting 911, but less than 2% of dispatch centers are equipped to receive those text messages.

A mix of fees and taxpayer money collected at the local level funds the 911 systems and dispatch operations. The largest source is a monthly fee added onto any new telephone line, wireless or wireline, of roughly $3/month. In 2009, there were over 672 million active phone numbers according to the FCC. Assuming that some landlines have been cannibalized with the rise of mobile, this means that the budget spent on 911 is at least 23 billion dollars ($23,400,000,000).

Put another way, the cost per call for initiating, routing and dispatching is around $90. Additional budgets and fees fund the emergency responders.

The rise of mobile smart phones and problems with it

Cell phones and now smartphones, have brought a slew of new challenges. The first is the fact that the phone no longer has a fixed location. Previously, when phone service was turned on, the address of that phone line was registered in a national database so that dispatchers knew the location of an incident when a call came in. Now, when a phone with an assigned number is capable of being anywhere in the world, that solution no longer holds.

Another issue with cellphones and the deregulation of communications is that the number of different types of handsets has climbed dramatically. A consumer has a lot of choices now. In the day of Ma Bell and 911’s origination, there were fewer types of phones and AT&T had much more control.

One more wrinkle is that software operating systems are further abstracting a carrier’s control over a smartphone’s user experience. Apple set this precedent when they did the exclusive deal with AT&T for the iPhone. When you first set up an iPhone today, the only bloatware you will see are Apple’s own apps – not the carrier’s.

Yet another significant challenge is the fact that smartphones aren’t actually just phones anymore. They are internet-connected, mobile computers that we occasionally use for talking. The principal usage nowadays is via apps and the utility of software-enriched, data-powered experiences. That is where consumer behavior is going and that may actually be public safety’s solace.

The openness of the app ecosystem as well as the relative similarity between the two dominant mobile platforms, iOS and Android, means there is an opportunity to circumvent many challenges. The stores of Google Play and the App Store are accessed by hundreds of millions of people every month. Only two versions of a software service need to be created to reach the vast majority of them and dramatically enhance their smartphone experience.

Apps, and the mobile operating systems, are a new opportunity to provide a better emergency communications system for the USA in the 21st century. While the idea of an app that serves as a new emergency communications channel sounds flippant, five years ago people would have said the same thing for one used to coordinate transportation.

What’s needed

The emergency communications system of the future needs to be designed for our new world of connectivity. This is a world where video can be instantly transmitted and where someone has a fully digitized real profile. That system needs to be able to take this information, route it to the best help, and make it actionable for responders. On top of that, it has to do this all in a secure way that preserves privacy.

Adoption is going to be quite a challenge as ‘9-1-1’ has been the standard for over 40 years. In today’s app-centric world, the keypad is no longer the primary interface and the need for dialing ‘9-1-1’ is antiquated. Changing the habits and behaviors of millions of people is going to be hard. A proven way to bring a new service to market is to focus on providing significant value for a specific set of people whose needs aren’t adequately met and then expanding from there.

It’s clear that the need is there. Sixty-five percent of mobile 911 calls in Silicon Valley have no location information. Seventy percent of 911 calls coming from cell phones. The FCC estimates that more than 10,000 American lives would be saved every year if this improves. That’s twice the amount of all Americans that have died since 2003 in the Iraq War.

It’s a big challenge and it’s what the future needs.

With BlueLight, there’s a 911 app for that

BlueLight founder and CEO Preet Anand shares his vision for re-inventing 911.

140-character pitch

The safety service built for a mobile world. Better than dialing 911, it is the fastest way to get help in an emergency.

What problems do you solve for government?

We solve the key problem of providing dispatchers with a caller’s location information. Emergency communications have actually become worse with the rapid adoption of the smartphone. 70% of 911 calls are made from smartphones, but dispatchers only get immediate location identification if someone calls from a landline. That doesn’t make sense.

BlueLight routes emergency calls to the nearest dispatchers based on the callers position and provides them with the caller’s exact location (along with other vital information). This ensures 1) the caller is getting the fastest response time as they are getting routed to the closest responders, instead of CHP and 2) the dispatcher knows exactly where the caller is if the caller is unable to speak or identify their location

This accelerates the speed of response and improves the outcomes for citizens

What’s the story behind our product?

In my freshman orientation for college, back in 2006, I heard the statistic that one in four college females were victims of attempted sexual assault. Having a sister, along with other many other important females in my life, I decided to make a dent in that number by developing a better solution. I made the wrong choice of trying to make pepper spray better and quickly learned that wasn’t the right idea.

Fast forward five years and I was a product manager at Zynga. Someone I was having coffee with had to jet to a meeting and they left their wallet behind but took their smartphone. At a subconscious level, he made the decision that his phone was more important than his wallet (his identity!). I realized the solution had to be on the smartphone to get widespread adoption.

The company was officially founded in January 2013. As we were learning about emergency communications for campuses, we realized that the opportunity was to improve 911 itself. That being said, we still think college campuses are a particular sweet spot for our service as campus security is not alerted when someone calls ‘911’ on campus, yet they are the closest responders.

What are its key features?

BlueLight has a couple of key features:

We route your call to the nearest responders (private or public) based on your position and provide them with your location. This requires no integration on the dispatcher’s end and it typically takes us only 45 minutes to add a new entity (such as ski patrol at a ski resort or a college campus).

If you call 911, we display your nearest address on the device itself so you can quickly confirm your location to a dispatcher without having to frantically look around.

You can test the service to know that it actually works!

4) It is available from your lock screen?

5) For day to day utility, you can use BlueLight to let someone know you’re on your way and it will show them your real-time location, notify them when you are nearby to your destination, and automatically ping them when you have arrived.

What are the costs, pricing plans?

Currently BlueLight is free. Ultimately, we expect to adopt a pricing model that will have an annual or monthly subscription that starts after a free trial.

We won’t do this until we believe we have proven the credibility of our service, as that is our first priority. We’re confident that once we have demonstrated the vast improvement that BlueLight offers, people will be willing to pay (given enough notice).

How can those interested connect with you?

Got natural disasters? There’s an open source emergency preparedness toolkit for that


Source: toolkit.sf72.org

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and woke up at to a 6.1 earthquake at 3:30 a.m. this morning, now would be a good time for citizens and local governments everywhere to take a look at City72 Toolkit.

The San Francisco Department of Emergency Management recently partnered with design firm IDEO to create the City72 Toolkit, an open source “emergency preparedness platform that promotes community resilience and connection.”

The toolkit is now freely-available to cities everywhere to re-purpose and customize to provide information to their own residents.

SFDEM’s Kristin Hogan Schildwachter shares the inspiration for City72 and how other cities can easily create their own.

What is City72 Toolkit?

City72 is an open source emergency preparedness platform that promotes community resilience and connection. This toolkit is designed specifically for emergency preparedness organizations and provides the information and resources to create a customized City72 site for any city or region.

It includes:

  • how to create localized content;
  • access to the code to build and install your City72 website; and
  • tips for how to manage and promote your site

How did it come about?

Until 2009, in San Francisco we were following the prescriptive “Make a Plan. Get a Kit. Be Informed.” emergency preparedness messages, which we modeled after FEMA’s national preparedness campaign “Ready.” And what we found was that we were only reaching a small percentage of the general public: the already prepared.

So, in 2008 our deputy director of emergency services, Rob Dudgeon, kicked off an initiative to redefine how we messaged and packaged emergency preparedness with the mantra “If we keep promoting emergency preparedness this way, we’re only going to get who we’ve already gotten prepared.”

We leveraged a lot of research based on social science data and also the findings from a major project assessing state of Bay Area Preparedness (the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative) Community Preparedness Project) to develop a communications strategy to redefine how we messaged emergency preparedness.

This strategy, the DEM Preparedness Movement Communications Strategy, became the basis upon which we communicated about emergency preparedness and informed our in-person and social media communications, but it was not reflected in our emergency preparedness website (at the time): www.72hours.org. We knew we needed to rebrand this website to align with our communications strategy, so we secured some grant funding and issued a request for proposal to redesign www.72hours.org.

IDEO bid on the RFP, and through a competitive process they were the selected vendor. From there, IDEO and its human-centered design approach helped us to manifest our vision resulting in www.sf72.org.

Meanwhile, we wanted to share our findings, experience and redefinition of preparedness messaging within the emergency management community at large. So, we wrote within the terms our final deliverable that it the web site be open source, so any other city could have access to SF72.org’s design and content.

To make this a more tangible possibility, we worked with IDEO to create the City72 toolkit.

How can others use it?

The City72 Toolkit provides cities ready to create their own version of City72.org step by step instructions for how to set up their site. It’s recommended to have some technical support from a web developer (or an internal city resource or contractor).

Who’s using it and how?

Right now, Johnson County, Kansas is in the process of creating its own version of City72 (to be called JoCo72.org). We have had conversations with other city offices of emergency management about City72, and we are hoping they may be the next generation of City72 sites.

How can others connect with you to learn more?

We would be thrilled to talk with anyone interested in City72.org. We can be reached via email at sf72@sfgov.org and/or Twitter at @sf72org.


City72 Tour from SFDeptEmrgcyMgmt on Vimeo.