Emerging Technology for Family Emergency Preparedness

The Internet and mobile devices transformed how we communicate, and though the potential for abuse exists, they offer opportunities for improving our daily lives, even physical safety. Still, while our methods have drastically changed, the U.S. emergency communications infrastructure is primarily based on a 40 year-old landline system and that poses technology gaps. For instance, nearly 70 percent of emergency calls now come from mobile phones, and 9-1-1 operators often cannot get an exact location of those callers.

For Tom Axbey, CEO of Rave Mobile Safety, the potential for technology to increase public safety drove the creation of Smart911. Used by more than 350 U.S. municipalities, this service lets people create free Safety Profiles containing details they want 9-1-1 to have during an emergency. When a person makes a 9-1-1 call, their Safety Profile automatically appears to the dispatcher if the public safety answering point (call center) is supported by Smart911. The thought is, the more information a 9-1-1 dispatcher has and can communicate to police, EMS and fire personnel in the field, the more precisely, quickly and effectively they can act, saving time and lives.

I interviewed Axbey to discuss how parents can use the Internet and digital technology to proactively increase family safety.

I've spoken and written a lot in the past about online threats to children and proper use of technology. This time, we're discussing sharing more information to increase safety. What's the distinction?

The key difference is in who can see the data. In our case, we're not talking about a social networking tool - this is a safety tool. Information entered is only available to public safety officials when someone is in need of help. It's not shared with anyone else.

What types of information are we talking about?

There are many critical details that can help emergency responders during a crisis. Recently, a mother called 9-1-1 when her child received a serious laceration on the face. She was understandably panicked and forgot to mention her child had a lethal latex allergy. However, she had proactively provided this detail, and when she made the emergency call the dispatcher saw this, alerted responders in the field, and further tragedy was avoided.

Sometimes a person calling 9-1-1 can't speak because of medical situations ranging from allergic reactions and closed airways to strokes and heart attacks. But if a dispatcher can see medical details, not only will they realize the silence on the other end of the line is not a "pocket dial," they can immediately send an EMS crew prepared to handle that specific emergency. Certainly, while a child may know to dial 9-1-1 in an emergency, they're not likely to recall a family's medical history or even a gate access code.

What about threats other than medical?

Well, recently there was a mother who experienced every parent's worst nightmare when her daughter failed to get off the bus from daycare and the school didn't know where she was. She had been proactive and supplied information, so when she called 9-1-1, the dispatcher already had a recent photo of the child and description to pass onto deputies en route to the school. The first hours are critical in a missing child search. With the help of a Mom who thought ahead, 9-1-1 drastically cut the time involved in information gathering. Thankfully the child was safely and quickly recovered.

Parents of children with special needs can use new technology for greater protection, too. For instance, children with autism can wander off, and not only do identification details help, emergency responders can be aware of how to best approach the situation.

For firefighters, having the floor plans of a home - knowing how many children there are and what bedrooms they're sleeping in - is a huge help.

Is there a problem with the traditional 9-1-1 service?

Not so much as a problem as there are technology gaps and some misconceptions. Unlike we're led to believe on TV shows, 9-1-1 and first responders actually know very little about callers. Usually they have just a phone number and some level of location information, often not even enough to dispatch units. Whether it's an abduction or a medical issue, the faster and more precise the emergency response, the better chance of a positive outcome. Giving the "good guys" even the most basic information - like the address associated with a mobile phone - can overcome a lot of obstacles.

So what issues do such services face in being adopted?

In the Internet/digital age, it's been ingrained in us to keep our personal information close -- and it's important we continue to do so, especially for children. But we have always had an understanding that sharing some information with the right people helps us. Readily available details in the right hands -- so long as the data is properly protected and only used for a purpose like emergency response -- can be a great thing. Once people understand this, adoption is swift.