When you call 911 from a mobile phone, software at the carrier and dispatch center triangulates your location. But in places where cell towers are widely spaced, like rural Pacific County, Washington, it doesn't work so well.
Outdoor enthusiasts in Pacific County sometimes call 911 with only a foggy idea of where they are. And according to 911 center director Tim Martindale Jr., the locations of cell phone callers are actually hard to pin down quickly.
Martindale’s center is about to go live with new software that provides improved speed and accuracy—within five to 10 meters even.
"The software we have through RapidSOS pings your cell phone the same way that Uber would, Dominos Pizza, any of those other apps that provide services directly to your location,” Martindale said.
For now smartphone owners have to download an app to make this work. Martindale said he's heard that most or all major cellular carriers will embed the GPS beacon capability in software updates by the end of this year so the app download becomes unnecessary.
The free SOS Beacon app that Pacific County recommends its residents and regular visitors download is available from the Apple or Android app stores. You load it on your phone and then can forget about it as it activates automatically when a call or text to 911 is made.
The app developer said it's talking to other 911 centers about following Pacific County's lead.
"There are multiple agencies looking into this in Washington & Oregon -- none that we can currently mention by name however," wrote RapidSOS spokesperson Michelle Cahn in an email Wednesday.
"Little Pacific County will be the first on the West Coast," Martindale marveled. "I've talked to a lot of my colleagues around the state and they're all very interested. They are kind of keeping a watchful eye and seeing how it goes with us."
"I kind of felt like we were penguins all huddled on the iceberg," Martindale said. "We're the first ones to dive off to see if there is danger and everybody else is watching to see if they can jump in in the water too."
The software was developed by New York City-based startup RapidSOS, which specializes in technology to improve emergency communication.
"RapidSOS gets help to users up to 5 minutes faster, dramatically altering the outcomes of emergencies," the company said in its press kit.
Martindale said the improved locator software was packaged with a larger upgrade of the phone system at the Pacific County Communications Center. He said it did not cost the county anything extra.