Homeland Security and Public Safety

Smartphone Application Will Give Campus Police a Virtual Look at an Incident

University of Maryland researchers are ready to test an application that streams audio and video of 911 calls to campus dispatchers.

Researchers at the University of Maryland (UMD) are about to begin beta testing a smartphone application that will stream audio and video from a 911 caller to the campus’s emergency dispatch center. The application, called V911, allows users to contact a public safety dispatcher with the touch of a button. Activating the application establishes a connection with a public safety dispatcher who sees and hears what is going on at the scene. The application also provides the dispatcher with the identity and location of the smartphone. 

The app sends data over the university’s wireless network. Streaming one minute of video may require up to 20 MB of data transfer, according to one data use calculator. Using the application in an area of campus not covered by Wi-Fi could be potentially costly, depending on a user’s mobile data plan. Researchers expect the cost of using the application to be covered by wireless carriers by the time it’s released.

The application will ultimately be free to students and other members of the university community. Application set up is expected to require registration that will provide dispatchers the phone’s unique identifier and location. “When you hit the V911 app, it connects to us, it pops up, the dispatcher sees it and they can hear it and they can communicate with the person via voice two-way communication,” said Jay Gruber, UMD’s assistant chief of police. “It doesn’t go through 911 like a standard phone call. It’s going to be directed to the IP address here at public safety.”

According to a university statement, V911 is one tool in MyeVyu (pronounced “my view”), a downloadable software package for cell phones and PDAs that provides networking and information access capabilities. The MyeVyu program also can provide campus alert information to the university community.

The application’s developers, led by Ashok Agrawala, director of UMD’s Maryland Information and Network Dynamics Lab, are working on functionality that would allow dispatchers to see the location and capabilities of nearby first responders, assign them to an incident, and send them the audio and video streams that are coming into the dispatcher. Multiple feeds around a certain area or incident can be rolled into a single window for easy management.

Information streamed to the public safety answering point (PSAP) is recorded if needed for future action or review. In the future, video streams from officers’ cars will be integrated into what the dispatcher sees. “When they reach the incident scene, what’s going on at the incident scene is monitored and is visible to the PSAP operator or the monitoring station,” Agrawala said. “At that point, these are extra eyes that can alert the officers for responding or whichever way they want to use that.”

The campus police also operate a security operations center where personnel monitor about 700 cameras. “When this app is integrated with our security operations center,” Gruber said, “it will automatically task cameras in the area through macros to where the incident is.”

The software does not require any additional hardware in the PSAP. “The only thing we’re going to have to do on our end is carve out a new virtual server,” Gruber said. “The only hardware is eventually we will probably want to have a hard server instead of a virtual server.”

Officers will have to add a GPS antenna to the mobile data computers in their patrol cars.

Gruber expects beta testing to start in the middle of February with about a dozen users. A wider pilot with a couple hundred users is scheduled for four to six weeks following the university’s spring break in March. The application should be available to the university community at the beginning of the fall semester in August. 

One potential concern is accidental calls. To minimize that possibility, developers may consider requiring users to make a simple hand gesture to activate the app. “We’re going to see how many accidental calls we get and if the accidental calls we get are very few and they’re within the acceptable range, we probably won’t do anything different,” Gruber said. “If we find a lot of them, then we’ll do what is called a double pull in that you have to do two functions that are very easy to activate the app.”  

V911 will first be available for Android phones and then be developed for the iPhone and BlackBerry devices.