Your call is important: why emergency calling needs an app

In the old days, if you wanted to get the fire brigade, ambulance or police to help you out, you’d dial 111 on your rotary telephone.

Your call would be answered by a Telecom operator who would know what number you were calling from, and where that telephone was located in the real world.

Help would be dispatched to your address even if you were incoherent or confused or even if you couldn’t actually speak.

Today eight out of ten calls to the emergency number are made from a mobile phone. The operator doesn’t know who you are or where you are physically based and so, unless you can tell them exactly where you are, the odds are you’ll spend quite some time explaining yourself – assuming you can of course.

Think about the last time you were out in the world – on a bus perhaps or driving to work. Could you have identified exactly where you were at every given moment? I don’t know about you but I couldn’t. I regularly travel down any number of roads on a daily basis and yet don’t know what their names are. Not a clue.

This isn’t uncommon. The front page story in the New Zealand Herald last week (“How smartphone app saved trapped woman”) puts it in stark relief – callers to the emergency services don’t always know exactly where they are. If it’s dark or raining, if you’re in an unfamiliar location or if the caller has had some kind of incident that may include head trauma or the like, it’s often very difficult to know what help to provide.

Your mobile phone knows where it is, of course. It has to – it has to be able to tell the network where you are, so it can direct your calls and TXT messages accordingly.

Today, most of the new phones being sold are smartphones. They have a more advanced capability in terms of access to the internet, and that often includes GPS satellite navigation capability. The average lifespan of a cellphone is around 12-18 months, which means the number of smartphones in use in New Zealand (currently estimated at around 65%) will increase to the point where only a few users don’t have access to such GPS capability in the next few years.

The government has recently called for the development of a smartphone app that will allow users to send their GPS data directly to the 111 call centre to better direct those first responders when help is needed. This is important if we’re to continue getting help to people who need it in as short a time as possible.

Sure, there are privacy concerns about the technology and its capability but the benefits surely outweigh any perceived threat. We can design apps that will only pass on such information when activated or when you want – this is something we do today on a regular basis.

Being able to push a big red “help me now” button or similar is a tremendous leap forward in terms of being able to apply limited operational resources in the most effective way possible. Trampers and boaties are encouraged to carry position-indicating beacons and this is a similar concept using mobile phones.

It’s not foolproof of course. The cellphone networks don’t cover our more rural and remote areas as well as we would all like but it is a major step forward in terms of being able to provide help where and when it’s needed most.

Hear CEO Richard Gill discuss emergency calling apps on NBR Radio