What 911 might look like in the mobile social era

911 is one of those crucial old-world telecommunications services that has adjusted to the mobile era but never embraced it. But if Location Labs has its way, calling 911 from a mobile phone will be a reliable and intelligent experience that is more useful for emergency workers and more reassuring for families.

I recently talked with Tasso Roumeliotis, CEO of Location Labs, about what the company has been cooking up in its labs, and one of the big initiatives is to upgrade 911 for the mobile social era.

For a little background, Location Labs develops several products including family locator and texting-while-driving prevention services that are available primarily through carriers such as Sprint (s s), AT&T (s t) and T-Mobile. It has also created its own bundle of consumer parenting services called Safely that handles location tracking but also includes Facebook monitoring.  Sprint last year rolled out its own service called Sprint Mobile Controls powered by Location Labs, that allows parents to see the calls, texts and applications of family members and allows them to lock phones remotely.

Mobilizing 911

911 dispatcherRoumeliotis believes a next generation 911 service can build off these tools to make emergency calls more effective. In the future, when a 911 operator receives a call from a phone outfitted with Location Labs technology, they might get a file at the same time with information on the caller, including potentially medical data and who they’ve been calling or texting with from their phone. And, if Location Labs customers approve it, the operator could get access to the caller’s Facebook profile. That would be helpful for pulling up a picture of the caller but also seeing who the person might have been interacting with.

Another service the company is working on is to show the historic location of the caller, so a 911 operator could see how the person got to the location from which they placed the call. The service could also bring up contextual data on the caller’s location to see what events are going on at the time or what kind of historical incidents have happened there. All of this can be helpful in dispatching emergency workers or providing a better understanding OF the nature of an emergency, said Roumeliotis.

“We think if a 911 call is made, that’s an alarm bell that goes off and then all the relevant information gets aggregated in real time with contextual location,” Roumeliotis said.

While those services could take longer to build, a simpler tool that could appear by next year is a notification service that alerts parents or caregivers when a family member calls 911. Parents are often the second call made by a child in an emergency, said Roumeliotis, and most parents would like to know if their children are ever in a place where they need to call 911.

Roadblocks ahead

Location LabsCreating this vision of a next generation mobile 911 service is fraught with challenges. Mobile 911 calls go to county call centers, which would have to adopt this system en masse for it to work. And the service would need to be inserted into a good number of phones with support from major carriers to be useful. Roumeliotis said Location Labs’ existing partnerships could help it eventually embed such a service on phones. And he hopes that counties would come around after they see the benefit of an updated 911 system.

And that doesn’t address the privacy implications of such a 911 service. While some parents might want to grant access to their kids’ Facebook pages to a 911 operator, their children might not be so willing. And some kids may balk at having their parents automatically notified when they call 911 because they might get in trouble. If knowing that a parent will be notified makes them hesitant to call 911, such a feature would defeat the purpose.

Roumeliotis understands the hurdles and says many of the details need to be worked out. But he said there are now a lot of tools at hand that can be used to solve problems quickly when a 911 call is placed.

While Location Labs has a lot to gain if it can become an embedded part of our 911 system, I am intrigued by Roumeliotis’ vision. Right now, calling 911 from a mobile phone is still very old school: Operators get a fix on your location via GPS or other location technology but it’s still up to the caller to explain the problem. I can see the privacy issues that could slow up this kind of a system. But it seems like with our connected devices and all the data available online, we can discretely use that information in times when it might help address an emergency.

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