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App gives responders mental health info for better decisions

A new app aims to keep first responders and people with mental illness safe during interactions.

RideAlong, which launched last year after getting its start through a Code for America Fellowship, lets law enforcement officers access information on how best to interact with someone who has mental disorders. It integrates with the national 911 system, so when officers search their computer-aided dispatch system for the name, address or physical characteristics of someone in distress, a link shows up inviting the officers to connect with RideAlong for more information on that specific person. For instance, it might suggest that asking the distressed person to draw a picture will help restore calm.

“The way it pops up in the 911 system is that there’s a link that says, ‘This person has a response plan. See the response plan,’” RideAlong cofounder and CEO Katherine Nammacher said. “And there’s a link that opens to the web browser on that same device as a new page or profile.”

Details provided in profiles include name, birth date, height, weight and behavioral information such as speech problems, tendency toward belligerence or confusion. It may also include an officer safety warning if the person had presented a danger in the past, triggers that could upset the person and de-escalation techniques. Additionally, the app provides tap-to-dial and email notifications for the person’s case manager and family members.

“By the time the officer gets to the call, they have this information,” Nammacher said. Such background mental health often was available to police previously, but not as an app. In Seattle, where the app was tested, police were emailed PDFs as they headed to the scene.

Built as a mobile responsive web application, officers can see RideAlong on Android, iOS and Windows mobile devices, on patrol car computers or in precinct offices. For a pilot test of the app, the Seattle Police Department stored the information onsite, but “our hope is to move to the cloud,” Nammacher said.

RideAlong sits on the same servers and requires the same security procedures that officers would use to access their own records management system. Additionally, although it deals with personally identifiable information, “the information that goes into our system is actually included in police reports anyway, which are public records,” Nammacher said. But because RideAlong collects the data and puts into one view, Seattle redacts that to keep it from public view, she added.

What’s more, users get role-based access to RideAlong. For instance, patrol officers have view-only access, but they can suggest changes to the response plan through the app, which then alerts the police department’s crisis management team. Someone there can then edit the plan accordingly.

Although RideAlong is not yet live, in March, it won the first place prize of $10,000 at Civic I/O at South by Southwest in Austin. Publications quoted West Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, a judge for the competition, as saying that “RideAlong had such a clarity of understanding of how the day-to-day process works that they’re trying to solve. It was impressive in its fidelity to what the needs are. It was clear that it wasn’t a technology play first.”

Editor's note: This article was changed June 20, deleting the number of Seattle profiles because the app is not live there yet.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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