How technology can help first responders save lives

New advances in automation, mobile services and artificial intelligence can boost emergency responders’ timeliness, precision and effectiveness.

Fifty years ago, the first 911 call was made in the tiny town of Haleyville, Ala. That simple three-digit sequence has since been transformed into a national emergency number memorized by hundreds of millions of Americans, saving countless lives in the decades that followed.

But while a national emergency number represents an enormous tool to help rescue imperiled citizens, the emergency response industry has fallen behind when it comes to adapting the latest technological advances. This reluctance to embrace change undercuts responders’ effectiveness, underscoring the need for new technologies to benefit all citizens.

The good news is that there is a broad range of new advances that boost emergency responders’ timeliness, precision and effectiveness. Wider adoption of these innovations will mean higher quality services, which will ultimately result in swifter, better responses and more lives saved.

Here’s a glance at five of the most promising ways the emergency services sector can put tech to work.

1. Cars that dial emergency services. Starting this year, new cars sold in the European Union must be equipped with eCall -- an alarm system that delivers an automated message to emergency services following an accident, providing authorities with the car’s precise location. The system can be triggered by either passengers pushing a button or by in-car sensors, like those used to deploy airbags. Aside from the vehicle’s location, car sensors can also provide the speed of impact, tire or oil quality levels and even about injuries sustained by passengers. The European Commission projects that the eCall system will improve crash response time by up to 50 percent in rural areas and 40 percent in urban areas, saving as many as 2,500 lives annually.

2. Bringing AI to 911. Among the most exciting examples of AI in emergency response is AUDREY – the Assistant for Understanding Data through Reasoning, Extraction and sYnthesis, developed for firefighters by NASA and the Department of Defense. AUDREY leverages AI to collect temperature data, identify danger signals and safely guide firefighters through ongoing incidents and deploying resources. In short, AUDREY can act as a “guardian angel,” telling a responder when and how to dart through burning structures to save property and lives.

Other burgeoning AI technologies can help diagnose heart attacks faster through speech analysis, helping emergency services responding to distress calls when every minute counts. AI can also deliver real-time flood forecasts to help communities and emergency responders “better anticipate the severity of a flood,” enabling dispatchers to optimize resource deployment.

3. Drones for search and rescue. In a sample of 18 incidents in which volunteers deployed drones -- including fires, floods and natural disasters -- the unmanned aerial vehicles helped save at least 59 lives by allowing rescuers to find missing people and deliver lifesaving supplies to areas in need. Drones can also assist authorities in assessing the damage caused by natural disasters, providing better vantage points in settings too dangerous for human observers.

4. Digital medical IDs. Our smartphones have more computing power than an Apollo spaceship did, and innovators have leveraged this power to improve emergency health care. Consider the Medical IDs featured on Apple’s Health app: Users can fill the app with health information including emergency contacts, allergies, medications and blood type -- crucial data that medical teams can access with the owners’ permission when responding to medical emergencies.

5. Social media that saves lives. Social media's usefulness in emergencies is growing more widespread. By tapping into Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter, first responders can see live updates of citizens involved in an emergency situation. Even in active-shooter situations, citizens with a phone and social media apps can record and share their situation, which may just help save their lives.

6. Location, location, location. Ever wonder why an Uber driver or pizza deliveryman can find your exact location using GPS, but 911 can’t? Emergency dispatchers’ outdated triangulation technology is to blame. The 911 services typically triangulate cell tower signals to locate callers in distress -- but that technology is accurate only up to a certain point in urban and rural areas. An influx of new location services using advanced technologies, however, are bringing emergency services into the digital age.

These technologies are just the beginning. As innovation proceeds apace, the array of mission-critical tools that can aid emergency services providers will continue to proliferate. By harnessing tech, we can help provide first responders with crucial tools and information they need to help us all -- turning minutes into seconds and victims into survivors.

NEXT STORY: Laying the groundwork for 5G

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