Sussex EOC a development partner in pioneering 9-1-1 technology

GEORGETOWN — In emergencies, seconds count.

So does exact location.

Sussex County may sometime this year have pioneering startup technology that instantaneously provides dispatchers a 9-1-1 cellphone caller’s precise location.

Tuesday, the Sussex County Emergency Operation Center was testing ground for RapidSOS, new software technology that pinpoints 9-1-1 caller locations more accurately and much quicker than current systems.

“The way to think of is, a telecom system that ingests data from wearables, smartphone, connected cars, industrial sensors,” said RapidSOS co-founder Michael Martin. “All of that comes into our system and then we pass that directly into the technology here at the 9-1-1 dispatch center. It’s more data and faster, with very accurate location immediately.”

Sussex County EOC Director Joe Thomas explains the process as dispatcher Jeff Kowalski takes a 9-1-1 test call. (Sussex County Post)

If adopted Sussex County would be the first 9-1-1 center in Delaware – and possibly on the East Coast – to use this technology that utilizes sensors on modern devices, such as GPS, WiFi access points, cell towers, Bluetooth beacons and barometric pressure sensors.

“The idea that what the technology can do for us, absolutely we are going to explore it to see what’s there,” said Joe Thomas, Sussex County EOC Director.
Sussex County’s state-of-the-art EOC beehive was chosen for the May 9 test in part due to its collaboration with RapidSOS in development.

“I think what was important is they (EOC) worked with us to develop this technology. So, they tested it with us. They have evaluated it,” said Mr. Martin. “They’ve helped us learn. I mean, fundamentally, we’re a group of computer nerds. There is so much deep expertise here about managing emergencies.”

“That is why it is awesome to be here because this technology was partially built in partnership with the dispatch center here,” said Mr. Martin. “There are about 6,000 9-1-1 dispatch centers across the United States managed by 10,000 municipalities. This is one of the best centers in the whole country. When we first reached out there was a real willingness to work with us to try to build this technology. It has been awesome.”

“While we can get all the data in, we needed their expertise to tell us, ‘Here’s how we want to receive it,’” said Mr. Martin. “What is great here is they have so many systems. We can choose the best way to plug it in. We’re in the middle of doing that. I think we’re still deciding the best interface but it could be through their Computer Aided Dispatch system, their 9-1-1 call-taking system or the Smart911 System.”

The RapidSOS software is free at no charge to the county.

Adoption by Sussex County depends on if the price is right; EOC officials are checking to see if there is any cost for integration through its CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) vendor, TriTech. That would likely require county council approval.

“They are working with our CAD vendor. We don’t know if there is going to be a cost involved with the CAD vendor,” said Mr. Thomas. “As far as RapidSOS, there is no cost.”

Mr. Martin, co-founder of RapidSOS with Nick Horelik, said RapidSOS evolved from a tech start-up with a mission.

“Our roots were out of MIT, Harvard and Stanford. We built it during grad school. It was a former EMT who worked at Google, a nuclear engineer from MIT and I worked on building technology companies. So we came together to say, ‘How can we push more data into 9-1-1 systems?” Mr. Martin said.

If adopted by the county, it could be available in the second half of 2017.

Precise location in an emergency is paramount for dispatchers in relaying information to first responders.

“That’s the first question throughout the whole center: Where is the location of your emergency?” said Rick Short, Sussex EOC’s assistant chief dispatcher. “If we’ve got a location it doesn’t matter who’s calling. If we don’t have that good information then it becomes a puzzle.”

“Why do we ask what is the location of your emergency? Because we need to confirm that what we are seeing on that map is truly where you’re at,” said Mr. Thomas. “If not we’ve got to figure out where you are.”

Mr. Thomas believes Sussex EOC, which handles approximately 100,000 9-1-1 calls a year, is an ideal test site because of the county’s diversity.

“One-hundred thousand calls sounds like a lot. New Castle has over 300,000. When you’re looking at centers to be a test site ours is kind of prime because we get just enough but we are not overloading,” said Mr. Thomas. “We have the best of both worlds. We have a tourist population on the east side, along the coast line and then we’ve got rural areas in the western part. It presents a good test.”

And because Sussex County is a seasonal tourist haven it’s fair to assume that a good number of the 9-1-1 calls are coming from people who are visiting and not familiar with streets, locations and surroundings.

“That’s why we are looking at this. Those folks, they are on vacation so they don’t know the landmarks. They don’t know the streets. They don’t know the roads. So, having this kind of technology to improve our accuracy will improve our service,” said M. Thomas. “The last several years it has been over 100,000 calls a year. And 80 percent of those are cellphones. In fact, in the summer season, Memorial Day to Labor Day, that number goes up to almost 85 percent.”

The state mandates that 9-1-1 calls must be dispatched within 72 seconds, Mr. Thomas said. The Sussex EOC is meeting about 80 percent. “In most cases, with multiple dispatchers, there is usually a dispatcher still asking questions and we’ve already dispatched the resources. We’ve already started the ambulance, the paramedics, the fire department, so it is a team effort,” said Mr. Thomas.

“You say 80 percent of the time; so it sounds like 20 percent is bad,” said Mr. Short. “But some of those calls are calls that aren’t good locations that we have to really start getting down to, ‘OK, if we’re coming from this way, give us directions.’ Hopefully, this system will work.”

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