Homeland Security and Public Safety

Smartphone Panic Button Connects Children with 911, Emergency Contacts

A California school district is piloting the app to increase student safety.

As the FCC and public safety officials work to define and build out the next-generation 911 infrastructure that will be capable of providing first responders with detailed situational awareness of the scene of an emergency, universities, localities and states have begun building and using some of the pieces envisioned in the completed whole. Providing beneficial information to first responders when a 911 call is received could decrease response times and increase safety.

Numerous projects are under way to increase the flow of information between governments and citizens. For example, state and local governments, including Delaware and two Georgia cities, are encouraging citizens to verify their address and register basic medical information with them to facilitate emergency assistance. And universities have begun deploying platforms that allow users to text 911.

Now a California school district is piloting a smartphone application that brings all those capabilities together and allows students to reach out for emergency help with a touch of a button. So far 12 students in the Alhambra Unified School District are testing the app, called SafeKidZone, which creates a personal safety network for children that quickly connects to 911 when they push the “panic button.”

The app, developed by telematics provider MobileTrec, allows parents to program a list of contacts into the phone that are simultaneously alerted when the child holds down a designated number on the phone that acts as a panic button. Once activated, a text message and e-mail are sent to the people in the child’s safety network; they may also be connected in a conference call to hear what’s happening.

As part of the set up process, the child is given a safety profile, which may include a picture, physical description and any special instructions first responders may need to know in the event of an emergency, such as if the child is allergic to penicillin or doesn’t understand English.

The child’s location and safety profile information is transmitted to a public safety dispatcher through the 911 trunk in accordance with California’s voice over IP enhanced 911 acceptance testing criteria. The location information is then plotted on a map on the dispatcher’s screen with a link to the safety profile viewable through a Web browser.

Although as of press time, the app hadn’t been activated by a student, Sgt. Jerry Johnson, who oversees the project for the Alhambra Police Department, said the students feel safer just having the application in their pocket. “These are kids who are getting bullied, who are maybe a little bit afraid [of] maybe the neighborhood,” he said.
Parents like the idea that they can be notified when their child is in distress. “They think it’s wonderful that within 10 seconds [their child] can push a panic button and these people are notified, and mom and dad know what’s going on,” Johnson said.

In addition, the app can send pictures as well as stream video and audio from a caller’s location, which the police department can accept on a limited basis. Prior to the launch of the pilot, SafeTrec worked with Gamaliel Catalan, a communications supervisor for the Alhambra Police Department, to determine what information dispatchers needed on their screens. “XY was the most important thing,” he said, “but also being able to retrieve the [safety profile] information on the caller.”

The first students have been using the application for a couple months. Johnson planned to distribute additional phones by June 24. School district representatives declined to comment on the pilot or were not immediately available for comment.

Increasing Safety For All

SafeKidZone is also available to the public as a free app that allows parents to set up a safety profile for their children and be notified by text or e-mail if their child is in distress. The same app is also available for adults under the name SafeTrec. With both apps, $9.95 a month allows emergency contacts and dispatchers to see callers’ locations and live conference calls connecting callers with their safety networks and 911 dispatchers. Wireless network data charges may apply.

Callers’ location and safety profile information is displayed on dispatchers’ monitors as an additional map layer sent to through the 911 trunk. The safety profile is viewable in a Web browser. Some public safety answering point systems may need to be upgraded to receive streaming audio and video or the location information depending on the state of their systems.

Carl Dorton, 911 coordinator for Tarrant County, Texas, see the app’s potential but said the county will need to make some upgrades to its systems to utilize the information. “We used to have a caller’s voice. Then we had the addressing. Then we had the location, the telephone number,” he said. “Now we’re adding more information. The more information can be cumbersome, but the more educated the dispatcher becomes for different programs the better it is for them to utilize that information appropriately.”