Solving Problems Kim Lachance Shandrow  | October 18, 2017

Rethinking 911: How This Startup is Saving Lives

America’s 911 system receives more than 240 million calls a year. But the aging infrastructure is fast becoming obsolete, and with tragic consequences.

The system, originally built for landline phones, now gets about 70 percent of emergency calls made from mobile phones, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The problem: 60 percent of mobile 911 calls have inaccurate location data or worse, no location data at all, leaving dispatchers in the dark about the caller’s whereabouts. And this “fatal flaw” has had dire consequences in emergencies when every second counts. The problem led to the loss of more than 10,000 lives in 2015 alone, also reports the FCC.

Michael Martin, a Harvard Business School graduate, and Nick Horelick, an MIT graduate and former Tufts University suicide prevention call center volunteer, are on a mission to rethink and fix the country’s antiquated system. In 2013, they co-founded a New York City-based emergency tech startup called RapidSOS. The ambitious young entrepreneurs spent the last four years working with public safety officials across the country to develop cutting-edge software and technology that universally push key mobile, wearable and IoT device data directly into the legacy 911 system, and, ultimately, right into first responders’ hands.

Two years into the development of the company, Martin had a very personal brush with the failing of the current system. During a 2014 snowstorm, his father fell off the roof of his childhood home while trying to clear snow, shattering his hip and breaking his wrist. He dialed 911, only to have the call not go through. And there he lay on his icy driveway in 20-degree cold for two hours, unable to move or reach his cell phone until Martin’s mother came home to find his father lying in the snow.

The upsetting event only deepened his resolve, and so far the company is making waves. Their specialized system has increased response times by an average of seven minutes per incident, Martin claims. In the emergency response realm, getting those precious minutes back adds up, potentially saving 187,000 lives per year.

In addition to improving how emergency call data is transmitted via mobile phones, RapidSOS is developing technology that leverages data captured by smart car systems, home security systems and wearable devices to get people help faster and more effectively. That means a future where emergency responders will have pertinent client health history before they get to the scene. This also helps firefighters know exactly where a fire is burning and the intensity of the blaze in real time.

We caught up with Martin to learn more about what led him to start RapidSOS, how it’s upending the emergency response landscape and what’s on the horizon for the startup. Here’s what we found out:

What was the entrepreneurial ah-ha moment that led you to found RapidSOS?

“I first experienced the challenges with the current 911 infrastructure on a cold night in East Harlem in December 2012. Walking home late with someone following me and getting increasingly closer, I realized how difficult it is to get out your phone, dial a number and have a conversation in an emergency. I ended up hitting Uber to at least get someone on the deserted street. After this experience, I became committed to harnessing every ounce of technology for when we need it most.”

How does RapidSOS improve upon our country’s 911 system through technology?

“Our nation’s 911 infrastructure dates to the 1960s and 1970s, and is a voice-based system. The result is that nearly every emergency requires a human to dial 911 and verbally speak the location and what is occurring in an emergency.

In the data age, wearables, connected cars, industrial sensors and home IoT systems can provide life-saving data on emergency response. RapidSOS spent 4 and a half years working with thousands of public safety officials to build out a rich data link into 911 centers and first responder networks across the U.S. The result is a complete transformation from a voice-based system to a rich data link, providing faster, more effective emergency response at no cost to public safety.”

In which markets is RapidSOS currently being used — in and outside of the emergency response arena — and what measurable impact is the system having?

“RapidSOS provides data from millions of connected devices directly to 911 and first responders anywhere in the U.S., providing a faster, more effective emergency response while eliminating the need for an expensive third-party call center.

In the wearables space, RapidSOS provides continuous health monitoring. In the automotive space, RapidSOS provides rich telematics data to first responders in an accident. An analysis of our technology conducted with leading experts from MIT and Harvard University estimated a two to 10 percent reduction in mortality, a 6.9 percent reduction in healthcare treatment costs and a 20 percent reduction in structural damage in certain building fires.

Additionally, RapidSOS is endorsed by 36 national nonprofits and has more than a dozen commercial contracts with connected device companies.”

What’s next for RapidSOS? What can we expect from your inspiring startup in the future?

“We’re working with leading data scientists to build predictive models around emergencies. For 200 years we have thought about emergencies in terms of response. We believe we can drive a complete paradigm shift from response to emergency prediction and preemption.”