You can let Facebook, Google and Uber know where you are from a tap of your smartphone, but when it comes to getting help in an emergency, you have to dial 911 and verbally reveal your location. That extra time and effort can be a burden and make a critical difference for callers in trouble, which is why one tech startup is looking to eliminate it.
New York City-based RapidSOS released its solution to the public this week, in the form of a new smartphone app. At the tap of one button, Haven will dial 911, and send your location, medical information and the category of your emergency to the nearest dispatch center.
Back in the era of landlines — before the introduction of the smartphone — this concern wasn’t much of a problem for dispatch centers. They could trace the landline number to someone’s billing address in case the person did not know or could not say where they were. But now, 73.1 percent of 911 calls come from mobile phones, according to a 2014 report from the Federal Communications Commission.
“It’s amazing the capabilities in our pocket every day, precise location, medical information, video feed, and yet when our lives are on the line, none of that data is available [to 911]. It’s just a phone conversation,” said Michael Martin, CEO of RapidSOS, which has 25 engineers and is supported by $5 million in venture capital funding from Highland Capital partners, Two Sigma Ventures and Responder Ventures.
Martin, 29, became interested in the idea after his father broke his hip and wrist from falling off the roof of his house in rural Indiana. For several hours, his father lay in his driveway, until Martin’s mother came home, found him and dialed 911.
In the summer between his two years at Harvard Business School, Martin traveled across the United States and visited 911 dispatch centers. He analyzed the infrastructure and spoke to hundreds of people who were frustrated by the outdated system.
One telecommunicator from Oklahoma told Martin that she once listened to a woman get beaten in a domestic violence situation for 23 minutes. “She dialed 911 and threw the phone underneath the couch, assuming 911 can find her,” he said. At the time of the crisis, they couldn’t. The FCC estimates that at least 10,000 lives are lost each year from inaccurate location information on emergency victims.
For the last three and a half years, Martin and other graduates of Boston-area schools have worked on building a system that ties a mobile phone to a 911 dispatch center, regardless of the victim’s cellular service and regardless of the type of equipment available.
There are about 6,300 different dispatch centers throughout the U.S., and some centers do not rely on or even have access to internet.
“We kind of got our butts kicked in the beginning years. We were kind of the classic set of naive MIT, Harvard, Stanford grad students who said, ‘We can solve this, right?’ The reality is we thought this would be a lot like Uber, but no, it’s not at all like Uber. This is a system that can never fail,” Martin said.
RapidSOS released a beta version of Haven six months ago and made it available to 5,000 people across the United States who have made 70,000 test calls. The Cambridge Police Department in Cambridge, Massachusetts, tested the service and has since committed to offering it for free to all local citizens for the next 10 years.
“The biggest reason is to increase our overall response time. The current process now for a wireless user is a phone call for 911 will go to the State Police and ultimately go to the Cambridge Police. It’s the two-step process that’s unnecessary,” said Jeremy Warnick, director of communications for the Cambridge Police Department.
In addition to providing first responders with more information faster, the Haven app will also notify emergency contacts if a user chooses to list them. A message will be sent after the 911 call is complete and could help prevent the chaos that can ensue after an accident or attack.
Haven is currently available for iOS and Android on Apple App Store and Google Play Store. The app is free to download, and users are charged $2.99 a month for the service. Anyone can apply to waive the fee with “no questions asked,” according to Martin.
But even with the app now available to anyone, the engineering doesn’t stop. The one-touch dialing service is available in 251 countries, but plans are to grow it more internationally. The company also has plans to integrate with third-party apps in the sharing economy industry and also work with wearables.
Additionally, Martin and his team at RapidSOS have a much larger vision than improving 911 calls: They want to help prevent accidents from occurring.
“Right now, we’re working on how we can connect people better with first responders, but ultimately we can use the data to build models,” Martin said. “We use predictive algorithms for everything from how UPS delivers packages to your Facebook News Feed, but we don’t use that for emergencies.”