Ambulance rushing to emergency

App would give 911 operators control of callers' smart phones

A smart phone application to be publicly demonstrated next week could let emergency 911 operators take control of phones at the scene of an incident to gather medical data from victims.

Smart phone on an emergency victim torso

A caller can place his smart phone on a victim's torso, and the emergency operator can view the victim's breaths per minute, gauging whether or not the caller should start CPR.

The emergency victim can transmit vital sign information to emergency responders

The victim himself, if physically able, can transmit vital-sign information to emergency responders.

Photos by Logan Widick, University of North Texas

The Android app, being developed at the University of North Texas with National Science Foundation funding, will be unveiled at the National Emergency Number Association conference in Charlotte, N.C. Remotely controlling a device’s cameras and accessing medical vital signs data collected by the app could help an operator make faster, smarter decisions.

The app currently is in the development stage. It will have to undergo testing in a hospital environment and gain Food and Drug Administration approval before being made available.

If approved — and if the public safety answering points (PSAPs) that handle 911 calls can implement the technology needed to use the app — it could help leverage the growing computing and communications power of consumer mobile devices to put information into the hands of dispatchers to ensure a timely response to emergencies, said Ram Dantu, professor at UNT’s Computer Science and Engineering Department.

The application is part of a broader effort to integrate smart phone technology into the nation’s 911 system. The Federal Communications Commission currently requires cellular service providers to give location information for emergency calls to PSAPs. Through its Next Generation 911 program FCC is trying to incorporate a full range of mobile- and Internet-based technologies into the emergency system, enabling the use of text, video, images and other digital data by PSAPs.

“Most emergency calls are made by cell phone” today, said Henning Schulzrinne, chief technology officer for the FCC and chair of Columbia University’s Computer Science Department.

He said as many as 70 percent of 911 calls are made by cell phone and that about 35 percent of the U.S. population now has no landline phone. This shift presents both challenges and opportunities for the emergency call system.

The primary challenge is accurately locating the source of cellular and voice over IP calls, so that they can be routed to the proper PSAP and dispatchers will know where to send help. Carriers using network tools and GPS can provide pretty accurate location information for calls made outside, but calls made from inside buildings are harder to locate. Vertical location is a particular challenge, since GPS can only locate a device to within about 60 feet vertically, Schulzrinne said. “That’s a big problem.”

The opportunities lie in the possibility of gathering more information through the growing functionality of smart phones and mobile devices. Cameras and microphones, and the computing power to analyze data provided by them, could help provide remote operators with greater situational awareness during emergencies.

The UNT app was demonstrated for the press by Dantu and Schulzrinne. With console software and an Internet connection, a PSAP operator could take control of a caller’s phone using the app, much like a help desk operator can remotely take over a desktop for troubleshooting. The operator could access live video, controlling zoom and exposure, to see an emergency scene and assess the medical condition of a victim. Vital signs such as breathing, heart rate and blood pressure could be gathered from the microphone and light sensors on the phone and displayed on the operator’s screen.

The operator would direct the caller in gathering the data and the caller would have to enable the operator’s remote control for the session. This opt-in requirement offers a compromise to provide some assurance of privacy and security while enabling the gathering of data. The initial application is being developed for the Android operating system. If successful, it could be ported to the iPhone.

“All of these tools rely on reliable connection to the Internet,” Schulzrinne said. Using live video probably would require a high-speed 4G connection, while the biomedical portions probably could use slower 3G, WiFi or cellular data connections.

This is not a big problem on the user’s end because of the growing availability of high-speed wireless coverage. Carriers estimate that in 2014 4G service could be available to 98 percent of the U.S. population. But there could be a challenge on the back end.

“Unfortunately, not all PSAPs have IP connections to the call-taker,” Schulzrinne said. “We have about 6,000 PSAPs” in about 3,000 counties. Getting connectivity and the needed operator training for the application in thousands of state and local jurisdictions will be a challenge. “It’s a large and complicated system.”

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