A Picture is Worth 1000 Lives


While most 911 centers answer the phone with, “911 where’s your emergency?”, the other most common phrase is, “911 what is your emergency?”. Putting aside the debate of which is more important, as depending on the agency a strong case can exist for either, the fact of the matter is that we should utilize technology to answer both questions automatically or provide guidance in the answer. With the lions share of 911 sessions arriving into PSAP’s from cellular devices (85% or more in most areas) and the bulk of those devices being intelligent smartphones that are capable of reporting explicit location accuracy down to a few meters, it is fair to say that the priority is gradually moving towards WHAT, as WHERE is becoming less and less of an unknown parameter. Certainly, there are cases where an individual is calling on behalf of another person, or someone is calling about an incident that occurred in the past, but for the sake of argument, I think we can all agree that technology is doing its part to mitigate, or at least reduce the question of where. 

I can’t help but think back to a day a few years ago when I was heading into New York City for a meeting downtown. It was about 10 o’clock in the morning, at the Hoboken New Jersey Transit rail station, where I was going to catch the PATH train into the city. It was well past rush-hour traffic, and the station was deserted. While walking by one of the automatic ticket machines, I noticed a very suspicious suitcase tucked away next to one of the machines, wherein just an hour or so, the lunch hour rush would have the station full of commuters and passengers.  

A picture containing sitting, suitcase, luggage, small

Description automatically generated

I immediately thought about the popular tagline, “If you see something; say something,” and considering the potential severity of the situation, I felt this warranted a call to 911.  


The first issue that I ran into was that the 911 call taker didn’t understand clearly what my location was, nor was I sure myself. The NJT Hoboken train station has several entrances, and the one closest to me was more of an access door and not an entrance.  

To figure out where I was, I had to walk outside of the building and explain to the dispatcher what I saw. Back then, the cellphone location discovery protocols were limited to the Phase I Tower information which was not that accurate at that time. Eventually, the call taker understood where I was and dispatched a patrol unit to my location. After about 10 minutes, an NJ Transit patrolman arrived, and I accompanied him back inside the building to show him the suspicious package.  

New Jersey Transit – Hoboken, NJ – ©Google Maps

The instant the officer set eyes on it, his whole attitude changed in an instant. He grabbed my arm, and sternly said, “Hold on! Get outside, NOW.” He grabbed his radio and called for a K-9 unit to respond, as his assessment and experience told him that this was not normal and needs to be investigated further. After a quick check that no one else was in the area, and a call to the staff in the facility to block off the area, we went back outside and waited for K-9 to arrive. which took about another 15 minutes. When the K-9 arrived, they deployed into the building, and I got to watch from a safe distance. Almost immediately, the team called back that everything was clear, and upon opening the suitcase, it was obvious by the contents that this was nothing more than the abandoned belongings of one of the many homeless individuals that frequented the facility in search of shelter.  


As I continued my trip into New York City, I thought to myself, what a great example of a picture being worth a thousand words. Had I been able to send a picture of what I saw to 911 that raised my suspicion they would have then seen the situation, been able to consult with a supervisor, and then most likely immediately dispatch the K-9 unit with the initial officers. Not only would that have saved valuable time off the response, but K-9 would also be better aware of the situation, potentially hastening his response. If the situation wasn’t one that was benign, plans to activate and secure the area could have been activated. This is exactly why we built the battleship mode into the 911inform emergency response platform.  

This mode overlays a coordinated grid over the Geo-fenced location, indicating resources, or in this case hazards. Once marked on the grid, the affected danger area is clearly outlined based on standard blast radius information available, and a designated danger zone can be marked for evacuations. As rooms and areas are cleared, field response units can radio back to the command and control point, who can mark areas as clear or safe. Any field response unit that’s been invited to view the event has accessible live floor plans and is immediately made aware of any changes in the situational report during the incident on any smart device. Once the incident is closed, all data is immediately wiped from all devices, with nothing stored locally. This “clean slate” capability was in direct response to agencies concerned about making personal devices a discoverable in a court of law after an incident occurred. 

In the end, that was an excellent lesson to all. And I look back at the value of an enterprise team being a coordinated part of a response plan by receiving information about 911 call events that occur inside of their Geo-fenced facility. Events that originate from enterprise telephones are easily captured and reported on. Now that same functionality can be extended to incidents that originate from personal cell phones within the geo-fence. The functionality is provided without any special software on the cell device, or any registration by the user. Notification is provided back directly from the RapidSOS NG911 Clearinghouse, which is then plotted on a floor plan and map, making enterprise response teams aware with our new reverse notification functionality. “Make Every Second Count,” is what we strive for and when put in the right context, a picture can be worth not only a thousand words, but several saved lives. 



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© 2020, All Rights Reserved, Mark J. Fletcher, ENP
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