The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My injured father lay freezing for hours when his 911 call didn’t go through. Here’s how I’m fixing 911.

It’s time to upgrade a dated system. (Lois Raimondo/The Washington Post)

Over a foot of wet snow had fallen when my father climbed up the ladder to clear the roof.  My father remembers it as a blur, but in an instant he was lying in the driveway with the excruciating pain of a shattered hip and broken wrist.

Surrounded by only the snow piles of our rural Indiana home, my father painfully tried calling 911 — but the call failed.  For two hours my father would lay on the frozen driveway, his body temperature dropping while trying to reach first responders. Yet due to weakness of cell phone reception, it wasn’t until my mother came home from work to find him motionless in the driveway that she was able to call 911 from a landline phone.

The 911 system was originally developed in the 1960s. As the New York Times noted in 2007, as the system ages, “it is cracking, with problems like system overload, understaffing, misrouted calls and bug-ridden databases leading to unanswered calls and dangerous errors.”

A multi-state 911 outage in 2014 left 11 million Americans across seven states without 911 service. Over 6,600 calls were lost including those from Alicia Cappola, a young mother who tried calling 37 times before giving up and grabbing a knife to force out an intruder.

Despite all the ways that technology has transformed our lives over the last 50 years, when we need technology most we are trapped using this dated infrastructure. The result is that though applications such as Uber allow you to call a car to your precise location – reaching first responders generally requires dialing a number and having a detailed conversation where you articulate your precise location and type of emergency.

Recent investigations by NBC News and USA Today found that 60 percent of mobile 911 calls can’t be accurately located. A 2013 study cited by the FCC estimates that over 10,000 lives could be saved annually if we could more accurately determine a caller’s location in an emergency.

After a young career spent helping to commercialize new technologies, I entered grad school committed to finding a way to better utilize all of the technologies that we carry in our pockets to assist emergency response. I quickly connected with a group of engineers at Harvard and MIT who had had similar experiences around 911 failure.

Over the next two years, we worked closely with over 100 emergency dispatch centers globally to understand how the existing system works and to develop a way to push data into their existing systems.  Along the way we heard countless stories from heroic dispatchers who had saved innumerable lives in spite of the technology challenges.

With the help of the 911 community, we developed RapidSOS One-Touch-911, a mobile application that with one-touch transmits data off of your device (including your precise location, type of emergency, contact information, and medical/demographic data) directly into 911’s existing system.  The technology is universally compatible with every dispatch center across the United States.  The result is a system that dramatically increases the information available to dispatchers, accelerating response times, and saving lives.

The technology will ultimately work in over 135 countries globally — putting first responders one-touch away regardless of where you travel and what language you speak. For the 60 million Americans that are non-native English speakers or the 8 million Americans that are hard of hearing – this technology dramatically increases access to emergency services.

RapidSOS One-Touch-911 links to physical panic buttons, smartwatches, and other wearables.  We are currently working with a developer on a sexual assault prevention ring that can be used to trigger an alert.  Simultaneously, the app notifies loved ones — so that your friends and family are always connected in emergencies.

We just closed a Kickstarter campaign where 647 people contributed over $60,000 to #Revive911.  Today we are in beta with institutional partners across the country as we head toward a full launch in the late summer.  You can sign-up for the app now on our Web site.

Throughout this process we have been overwhelmed by the support of everyone from the 911 community to the families that have supported us on Kickstarter.  Together, as one voice, we are going to transform emergency communication and save millions of lives annually.

Michael Martin is a co-founder of RapidSOS. Prior to RapidSOS, he worked at Braemar Energy Ventures. Martin is currently completing his MBA at Harvard Business School.